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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

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