Project-based learning is nothing new. More than 100 years ago, progressive educator William Heard Kilpatrick published “The Project Method,” a monograph that took the first stab at defining alternatives to direct instruction. Predictably, the document sparked a squabble over definitions and methods—between Kilpatrick and his friend and colleague John Dewey.
Not much has changed. Today, despite major advances in ways to measure learning, we still don’t have common definitions for project-based learning or performance assessment.
Sometimes, for example, performance assessment is framed as the opposite of the dreaded year-end, state-required multiple-choice tests used to report on schools’ progress. But in fact, many performance assessments are standardized and can—and do—produce valid and reliable results.
Experts also emphasize the “authentic” nature of performance assessment and project-based learning, although “authentic” doesn’t always mean lifelike: A good performance assessment can use simulations, as long as they are faithful to real-world situations. (An example: In science class, technology can simulate plant growth or land erosion, processes that take too long for a hands-on experiment.)
In the absence of agreed-upon definitions for this evolving field, Education Week reporters developed a glossary based on interviews with teachers, assessment experts, and policy analysts. They’ve organized the terms here generally from less specific to more specific. These terms aren’t mutually exclusive. (A performance assessment, for instance, may be one element of a competency-based education program.)
Proficiency-based or competency-based learning: These terms are interchangeable. They refer to the practice of allowing students to progress in their learning as they master a set of standards or competencies. Students can advance at different rates. Typically, there is an attempt to build students’ ownership and understanding of their learning goals and often a focus on “personalizing” students’ learning based on their needs and interests.
Project-based learning: Students learn through an extended project, which may have a number of checkpoints or assessments along the way. Key features are inquiry, exploration, the extended duration of the project, and iteration (requiring students to revise and reflect, for example). A subset of project-based learning is problem-based learning, which focuses on a specific challenge for which students must find a solution.
Standards-based grading: This refers to the practice of giving students nuanced and detailed descriptions of their performance against specific criteria or standards, not on a bell curve. It can stand alone or exist alongside traditional letter grading.
Performance assessment: This assessment measures how well students apply their knowledge, skills, and abilities to authentic problems. The key feature is that it requires the student to produce something, such as a report, experiment, or performance, which is scored against specific criteria.
Portfolio: This assessment consists of a body of student work collected over an extended period, from a few weeks to a year or more. This work can be produced in response to a test prompt or assignment but is often simply drawn from everyday classroom tasks. Frequently, portfolios also contain an element of student reflection.
Exhibition: A type of performance assessment that requires a public presentation, as in the sciences or performing arts. Other fields can also require an exhibition component. Students might be required, for instance, to justify their position in an oral presentation or debate.
Performance task: A piece of work students are asked to do to show how well they apply their knowledge, skills, or abilities—from writing an essay to diagnosing and fixing a broken circuit. A performance assessment typically consists of several performance tasks. Performance tasks also may be included in traditional multiple-choice tests.
With thanks to: Paul Leather, director for state and local partnerships at the Center for Innovation in Education; Mark Barnes, founder of Times 10 Publications; Peter Ross, principal at Education First; Scott Marion, executive director at the Center for Assessment; Sean P. “Jack” Buckley, president, Imbellus; Starr Sackstein, an educator and opinion blogger at edweek.org; and Steve Ferrara, senior adviser at Measured Progress.
Have we missed any terms that confuse you? Why not write and tell us?
A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2019 edition of Education Week as Performance Assessment: A Guide to the Vocabulary