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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Comprehensive Assessment: An Overview

Performance assessments offer a richer, more holistic approach to evaluating what students know and can do. Read a short introductory article or watch a brief introductory video.
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Narrator: They are dueling with robots in Florida, and study microorganisms in New York, designing future schools in Seattle, and racing electric cars in Hawaii. All across the country students are being called upon to show what they know in challenging tests of their abilities.

Man: Here we go! The national championship on the line.

Narrator: These are the fun tests.

Teacher: Today we're going to take SAT I, the reasoning test.

Narrator: But today's students face other kinds of exams and their score on one of them can determine their future. With pressures mounting and stakes on the rise, some educators believe we are asking the wrong questions with standardized tests.

Linda Darling-Hammond: There's an irony in testing in American schools. We probably have kids who are the most tested and under examined of any kids in the world. Take New York State for example. Even before they get to the Regents examinations, students will have taken 20 batteries of tests over the course of their school careers.

So there are thousands and thousands of hours spent on taking these tests and preparing for these tests which give very little indication of what kids can actually do in real-world situations.

Howard Gardner: People may be good test takers but once you leave the world of testing you have to think for yourself because the world doesn't come organized in four choices with the fourth one being "None of the above".

Hugh Price: As I was mulling all these issues about the SAT I was struck by the fact that there are all sorts of other attributes like drive and grit and determination, ability to problem-solve, communication skills, leadership skills. These intangibles that were critically important.

Student: So we could get 120 points just for getting our robots in the end zone without scoring any balls-

High Price: And that by virtue of excessive reliance on SAT scores, you're ruling out large numbers of youngsters of all races and all complexions who may not have stratospheric SAT scores, but who have these other kinds of attributes that experience shows contribute to high-level success in the real world.

Eeva Reeder: Is this what the science wing would look like?

Narrator: Teachers like Eeva Reeder believe that measuring performance on projects is a better way to gauge a student's potential for real world success.

Student: Open inviting area-

Narrator: So instead of memorizing geometrical abstractions, her students spend the last six weeks of their sophomore year designing schools for the year 2050.

Student: Why not have the whole side like wall open, be glass facing the water.

Eeva Reeder: To assess a student's deep understanding of a subject and their ability to apply a concept you cannot test those kinds of abilities through a traditional paper and pencil kind of assessment. It has to be what we call a performance-based assessment and that's why I do these projects because the project requires these students to create products or performances.

Student: In the beginning we decided to start with the floor plans and the designs. Our school has one main building.

Eeva Reeder: I have to come up with ways to assess those products and performances so I look at the site plan and look at the perspective drawing. I read the proposal. And I have a scoring guide developed for each one of those. But I think that the most powerful assessment for this project is that provided by the architects.

Man: When I first saw your drawings I thought to myself this is a real consistent idea.

Narrator: While performance-based assessment requires a significant investment of time and energy, proponents insist it is time well spent.

Linda Darling-Hammond: The students have to develop the performances. The teachers have to evaluate them. But the time is not lost to teaching and learning. The time is teaching and learning. Because the actual conduct of the assessment is a learning experience for the students as well as the teacher. It informs teaching. It actually gives teachers feedback immediately about what they need to do to meet students' needs so it's actually productive time.

Narrator: The Urban Academy in New York City is part of a consortium of 32 schools that has rejected tests like the state's Regents exam and replaced it with a series of performance assessments.

Woman: This thesis isn't clear. It seems as though he jumps from-

Ann Cook: We're very interested in students developing certain skills. We’re interested in them developing an ability to work with multiple perspectives to be able to analyze evidence, to be able to critique.

We want them to be able to take text and talk about it, be able to understand to compare different texts and to read whole books, not just little snippets of books. And we've set them up with an external assessor. Someone who has agreed to spend an hour with that student who has agreed to read the book, and who then sites sown with that student and discusses that book for 45 minutes or an hour.

Student: She's going to him to see whether or not he saw what she had done.

Woman: Right.

Ann Cook: What we're really trying to see is can that student take that reading and go and talk to somebody they don't know, a perfect stranger, about the book and have a conversation about it. That's one way that we can tell whether a student is ready to go on and do college-level work.

Student: Is that about a 26. How come it's so low?

Narrator: Critics of performance-based assessment worry that if students are free to pursue projects of their choice standards will suffer. But some assessment experts say that independent study projects should meet the highest standards.

Grant Wiggins: What we have to do is realize that even if we give the kid free reign to do really cool projects it's still got to fit within the context of some objectives and some standards and some criteria that we bring to it.

Student: For those of you who aren't sure what [inaudible] pools are, they're-

Grant Wiggins: So that we can say by the end I have evidence, I can make the case that you learn something substantial and significant that relates to school objectives.

Teacher: As far as listening and speaking and writing, you're making steady progress.

Narrator: One school the Key Learning Community in Indianapolis in Indiana has a clear and unique objective. Established in 1987 the school is dedicated to the cultivation of multiple intelligences and to developing new methods of assessment.

Teacher: Ours represent that these are his strength areas and also anytime that you see a the shape of a triangle those also represent the strengths.

Pat Bolanos: We're interesting in how students apply knowledge and so students are required through their high school to do major projects each semester. At the end of high school they should have eight major projects that they would have developed and all of this is put together on a multimedia portfolio to document what it is they're capable of doing.

Student: I've been working with the Egyptians because they had so many symbols and hieroglyphics and things like that.

Pat Bonalos: I think that what we're doing here is going to be needed very soon because people are going to realize how shortsighted all of this effort on standardized tests is. It's going to crash. It has crashed in the past. It will crash and people will need something else to replace it and maybe we might help in that effort.

Narrator: For schools that are challenging the high-stakes testing movement, the goal is to put less emphasis on cramming, drills, and test taking strategies and focus on in-depth learning.

Ann Cook: I'm all for high standards. I don't know of anybody who is for low standards. The question is do we get at what we're saying we want using the tests to drive this? That's the real crux of it and I would argue that we don't.

Grant Wiggins: A lot of teachers and administrators in their understandable concern about these high-stakes tests are making a mistake when they say "Teach to the test, teach to the test. That's what we have to do." There's no evidence to show that you raise test scores by teaching worse. There's no evidence to show that when you teach for an in-depth robust performance where you have high-quality local assessment that your test scores suffer. In fact the evidence is to the contrary.

High quality local assessment is what we need to pay attention to.

Narrator: For more information on what works in public education go to

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Video Credits

Produced, Written, and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Associate Producers:

  • Roberta Furger
  • Leigh Iacobucci
  • Diane Curtis
  • Roberta Furger
  • Sara Armstrong


  • Karen Sutherland

Camera Crew:

  • Eric Seguim-Arnold
  • Jon Dobovan
  • Ken Ellis
  • Ward Laver
  • Gabriel Miller
  • Lewis Trusty
  • William Turnley


  • Susan Blake

Additional Footage Courtesy of

  • The College Board

Comments (54)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Allie S's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really like the idea of performance based testing. I think it truly is the best measure of knowledge and learning. I would love to be able to be a teacher who teaches using mainly performance based assessments. However, then the "real world" enters in. For example, my sister is a teacher in a school district in Ohio which is rated "excellent". She has felt a lot of pressure from the principal / adminstrators around standardized tests - they have gone as far as posting teacher's scores (on standardized tests) by classroom and teacher for all teacher's within that grade to see their ranking. A couple year's ago she appeared at the bottom of that list. Ever since appearing at the bottom of that list she has felt more pressure to "teach to the test". It is a sad testimony that a teacher wanting to teach for learning and knowledge feels "forced" to focus on their scores through "teaching to the test". The school district only had one thing that it cared about in the process - the rating they received on the state report card which is... based largely on student's test scores. So, the question to me becomes - we train teachers on the effectiveness and value of performance based assesments, but the real world does not allow them much flexibility in using that, who do we need to be training??

Sue B.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that the implementation of performance based assessments needs to be a district or school decision so that it can start in the very early grades and be developed as students progress through their education. The projects shown in the video were outstanding. My concerns are with the feeling that many students I know have not been asked to do these kinds of projects in elementary school and have instead been well trained in how to take objective tests. Often it seems like the information that the students are asked to learn is pared down to its most basic concept and more or less spoon-fed to the students. They know how to study vocabulary, rules, facts, etc., but when they are asked to apply a concept to a real world situation or come up with something on their own, they look at you like they have no idea what you are talking about. I tutor a number of middle school students and what their parents are paying me to do is help them get good grades on tests. I try to bring in concepts, but if those questions are not on the tests, we do not allocate much time to understanding concepts. In my experience, I think it has been at the college level where these types of performance based assessments are encountered and developed. For other students, it is through work-based apprenticeships where they learn to apply their knowledge (or intially learn the basics) in real world situations.

Standardized tests allow those doing the assessing to complete their task with much less effort than performance based assessments. Ohio Achievement Tests, Ohio Graduation Tests, and SATs offer cut and dried scores that appear to measure achievement. They are the lazy way out and we, as a society, have chosen the lazy way out. While many now realize that our educational model is not preparing students very well, we are faced with a huge challenge in working in the current environment of standardized testing while trying to design learning experiences which prepare students for the real world.

Michelle's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that standardized tests can be effective along with performance based assessment. I don't think that we should do away with standardized tests. There is something to be said for a student working hard to study for a test. Their memory is improved and they learn how to be consistent and dedicated to scoring well on the test.

Michael Burkey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed the video very much. I am an Instructional Assistant in an MD classroom at a high school in Columbus, Ohio. I am also a grad. student working toward my certification as an Intervention Specialist, starting to work with students with mild/moderate disabilities next year. However, this year I work with high school students with multiple and more severe disabilities. Around here, virtually all high school students have to take the OGT, the Ohio Graduation Test. But students in classrooms like ours have to take the Alternative Assessment Test, an evaluation that takes place of the OGT, for students with disabilities. This is my first year doing this, so I don't know exactly what the test entails just yet (we are starting it soon), but I know it is less like the SAT/OGT and actually more like the types of assessments/evaluations shown on this video. Of course, they are on a very different level, but the concept is the same: make sure the students can DO things, not just KNOW things, to get them ready for whatever they will do when they leave high school and venture out into the "real world". I agree with the opinion of the people who made this video. I think it will take a lot more time for our country's schools to get where they want them to be, but the mission is right. Perhaps students we are assessing NOW won't get the full benefit of the new system we are trying to set up, but are helping in the cause, and we are getting there one step at a time. Hopefully, a few years down the line, the official standards will change. My favorite line from the video is this: "The time is not lost to teaching and learning-- the time IS teaching and learning" (when they were talking about how long it takes to do these big project and evaluations). I believe the people who got the SAT/ACT to be the standard had good intentions, and the best thing about it is its efficiency, timeliness and simplicity, as far as storing and keeping track of students grades. It's easy for the people doing the assessing. But we are all realizing now that it's not so great for the people being assessed.
---Mike Burkey.

Akisha S's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As an eduacator, in depth leaning should be our goal. This happens when the student has a stake in the lesson. For the this to happen it has to be intresting to the studnent. I believe performance based assesment offers this opportunity to the student. As I have completed class observations, I have noticed how important it is to find alternative ways to provide instruction because kids become disengaged so easily these days. Standardized testing has not evolved in that has benefited our educational system. This is evident since our country turns out such a limited amount of scientist and mathmaticians. I believe that the performance based assesment model has a number of positives o offer our children. I would like to see the standardized testing be mixed with the performance based assesment model.

Donna W.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This video gives great examples from New York to Hawaii of students engaged in performance assessment. The criteria for these activities may meet many of the state standards that dictate the curriculum in classrooms. The current method for assessment around the United States involves high stakes testing. It is my opinion that high stakes testing does not fully prepare students for real life situations. The traditional college entrance exams are a prime example of how the results do not give a clear example of the student's ability. Many colleges and universities are requiring interviews to get a better understanding of the student after viewing the application and test scores. The Key Learning Community school requires students to complete performance assessments throughout the curriculum. These presentations then become a part of the student's multimedia portfolio. This is a benefit to the students as they and others assess the previous work the student has completed. Another benefit of performance assessment is the ability to provide learning opportunities and assessment in real world situations. Providing performance assessments in the schools gives students an opportunity to refine their skills. Currently most students don't know if their knowledge works in a real world situation until they graduate. This method is outdated and does not benefit the student.

regina k.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a teacher in the public school system, I feel that we teach our students to be prepared for the standardized tests. I have seen that many teachers teach to the test--the students learn what they need to know and it is reveiwed continuously until they know it. It that helping our students gain a true education? I would love to see more assesment testing as we saw in the edutopia video. We need to challenge our students to think outside the box.

Laura H.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This video brings up great points: promoting leadership, hands on, real world stuff. I think the idea of projects is great! It helps to make school and learning fun. Furthermore, I cannot stand tests. But - the question that kept coming up in my mind was: are students in a performance based assessing schools getting a solid foundation of knowledge? I think a research study could be conducted: schools that do not "teach to the test" should take the tests and see where they fall. Over a three year period of time (we want the study done soon) what have we found? If the students are performing well - great, if not then up the knowledge transfer while continuing projects and re do the study. In another post, a 20 year veteran teacher inferred that students do very well on testing when the performance activities are geared from the standards.
I think both projects and regular testing are needed. They serve different purposes beyond assessing knowledge.

Mick 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Brilliant. I really liked some of the project ideas the teacher's came up with. It was very encouraging to watch the students give their presentations on architecture in designing a school. It's obvious that such a presentation would not only require an in depth understanding of information applicable to state standards but also a deeper understanding to carry out their application.

I also really enjoyed the comments about the system of standardized tests. Our kids are the most "over tested and under examined." Real life "is not organized into four choices." They also reminded us that skills correlated with success like communication and leadership are not measured on standardized tests.

Val's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I recently went thru a career change from manufacturing/production planning to pursuing teaching. Coming from a business background you need to know how to collaborate, give and receive feedback, and achieve extremely high standards. The video pointed out that "measuring success on projects is a bigger determination of potential success in real life". I totally agree, I feel, as the video points out, that would be examining what students know rather than over testing.

The video also pointed out that "teachers get immediate feedback" from students working and creating projects. This is extremely valuable to a teacher so that they can make constant tweaks to their delivery of lessons.

In summary I like the video, it shows that we need to look at multiple ways of teaching and assessing. There isn't a text book titled "How a child learns", it is a constantly changing and moving target that needs to be reviewed, assessed, and studied every way possible to give every child every chance to be successful.

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