The Real World

How to make assessments matter.

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Ronald A. Wolk

Shortly after this school year began, top policymakers from seven states met for two days in New Hampshire to discuss whether performance-based assessment can be a powerful enough lever to change the way high schools are organized and operated.

Along with Rhode Island, New Hampshire is instituting competency-based assessment systems that link content to skills and use multiple measures—not just a statewide standardized test—to evaluate students’ proficiency.

Students still have to take and pass courses, but the courses are being redesigned to be competency based. That means students will have to demonstrate mastery of content—not through memorization, but through performance, portfolios, or projects that encourage them to think and solve problems with hands-on activities. Students may perform a musical recital, make a significant oral presentation, write a major essay, or submit a portfolio of cumulative work from different disciplines.

The point is that students must produce evidence that they understand the content and can apply it in “real world” situations. Also known as “authentic assessments,” performance assessments lead students to reflect on their work and assess it themselves instead of bubbling in answers to multiple-choice questions on standardized tests.

Students in both states will still have to take state tests, but scores may only be one (and not the deciding) measure used in evaluation. In Rhode Island’s new system, state test scores may not count for more than 10 percent of the credits needed to graduate.

Personalization is an indispensable ingredient in performance-based assessment systems. Students take more responsibility for designing their own education, and that tends to increase motivation and erode the barriers between disciplines. Teachers guide students and help formulate rubrics for judging individual student work—a process that has proved to be an effective form of professional development.

Both New Hampshire and Rhode Island are sailing into uncharted waters where perilous icebergs abound. Such fundamental change inevitably encounters skepticism (much of it uninformed) from virtually every quarter. Public education is controlled by a variety of vested interests, from local school boards to politicians to teachers’ unions. Each will be wary of any move that threatens its comfort or power. Moreover, making a performance assessment system work requires expertise, deep commitment, and flexibility. Teachers and administrators will have to reinvent themselves, to put aside old conceptions and practices, and do something new and different. And there are other obstacles, like costs, No Child Left Behind, and college admission standards.

Will performance assessments live up to their promise? A study of four schools that piloted the new system in New Hampshire reports: “…[T]he data demonstrate a clear trend that more students are staying in high school, more students are graduating from high school, more students are better prepared for success beyond high school, and more students are planning to go on to postsecondary education.”

In addition, the dropout rate was cut in half in two schools and improved in a third. Students also showed improvement on the SAT and the state’s standardized exam. All four schools exceeded the state average for the percentage of students scoring at the advanced or proficient level in language arts, and two were above the state average in mathematics.

Time will tell if New Hampshire and Rhode Island succeed in their bold efforts to redesign their high schools, and whether other states are prepared to join them. Maine, Nebraska, and Vermont are among a handful that appear to be moving in that direction. Whether they have the courage and skill to negotiate the icebergs remains to be seen. Wish them well.

Vol. 18, Issue 04, Page 54

Published in Print: January 1, 2007, as The Real World
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