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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Take a Deeper Look at Assessment for Understanding

Performance assessments go beyond traditional tests and serve as an important teaching tool.
By Roberta Furger
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VIDEO: Assessment Overview: Beyond Standardized Testing
Every spring, millions of school-age children throughout the United States sharpen their No. 2 pencils and prepare to take a battery of standardized tests. It's a ritual that has come to represent the nation's commitment to high academic standards and school accountability.

Parents use test scores to gauge their children's academic strengths and weaknesses, communities rely on these scores to judge the quality of their teachers and administrators, and state and federal lawmakers use these scores to hold public schools accountable for providing the high-quality education every child deserves.

For many, these standardized tests -- and the countless other smaller tests that are commonplace in today's classrooms -- are what come to mind when they hear the term assessment. We look to the end-of-week spelling test, the end-of-quarter biology exam, even the high school exit exam, to tell us whether our children are developing the skills and learning the material they'll need to succeed both in and out of school.

But tests aren't the only way to gauge a student's knowledge and abilities, just as reciting formulas and memorizing the periodic table is not the only way to learn chemistry. Throughout the country, many educators are going beyond traditional tests and using performance assessments in their K-12 classrooms to gauge what students know and can do.

They're designing projects that require students to apply what they're learning to real-world tasks, like designing a school building or improving the water quality in a nearby pond. And they're giving students the experience, as assessment expert Grant Wiggins says, "of being tested the way historians, mathematicians, museum curators, scientists, and journalists are actually tested in the workplace."

In a classroom setting, performance assessment is an essential companion to project learning. By developing comprehensive rubrics by which to evaluate student performances, teachers ensure that projects are more than just fun and engaging activities. They're true tests of a student's abilities and knowledge, linked to standards, and documented so that everyone -- students, parents, and educators -- understands what is being assessed.

The "performance" can include a wide range of activities and assignments: from research papers that demonstrate how well students can evaluate sources and articulate an opinion to experiments or problems that enable a teacher to gauge a student's ability to apply specific math or science knowledge and skills. Some performance assessments consist of individual projects; others require groups of students to work together toward a common goal.

But whatever the project or problem, well-crafted performance assessments share a common purpose: to give students the chance to show what they know and can do and to provide teachers with the tools to assess these abilities.

Assessment in Action

Assessment is a way of life for the 120 students at New York City's Urban Academy: Every day, in every class, students are encouraged and expected to demonstrate what they're learning. In Constitutional Law, they're required to argue a case before a mock Supreme Court. In geometry, they must apply mathematical concepts to measuring the height and volume of buildings or the distance between South Ferry and Staten Island using the Statue of Liberty as a reference point.

And before they receive their high school diploma, students must complete separate performance assessments (known at the Urban Academy as academic proficiencies) that demonstrate their skills and knowledge in six academic areas: mathematics, social studies, science, creative arts, criticism, and literature.

At New York City's Urban Academy, students show what they know through a series of performance assessments, such as this mock trial in Constitutional Law class.

Credit: Edutopia

"It's a system of assessment, not a single instrument," says Ann Cook, the Urban Academy's codirector. "It's a system based on a number of components, it goes on all year long, and it culminates in certain kinds of tasks that demonstrate what students can do."

These tasks might include writing a play and having it performed in front of the entire school, reading and studying a piece of literature and then being able to engage in a thoughtful conversation about it, or designing and conducting an original science experiment. With each proficiency, students must be prepared to share their work with classmates, teachers, and outside experts, who routinely lend their real-world expertise to the Urban Academy's assessment process.

The Urban Academy and more than 30 other alternative high schools that are part of the New York Performance Standards Consortium have adopted these rigorous performance assessments as an alternative to the Regents Exams, which high school students throughout New York State are required to pass in English, math, history, and science in order to earn a diploma.

Although their procedures may vary, all consortium schools have adopted a system of assessment aligned to state standards and based on a series of well-defined rubrics, so both the student and the teacher clearly understand the criteria on which work is evaluated. The Performance Assessment Review Board, an external group of educators, test experts, researchers, and members of the business and legal communities, monitors the performance-assessment system and evaluates samples of student work.

The consortium, says Linda Darling-Hammond, Charles E. Ducommon Professor of Education at Stanford University, represents an attempt "to develop high-quality performance assessments that can be evaluated in a reliable way." Darling-Hammond, who has worked with the consortium for more than a decade, points to member schools' high college acceptance rate compared with that of all New York City schools (91 percent versus 62 percent) as a testament to their rigorous curriculum and assessment.

Applied Learning

Across the country, at Mountlake Terrace High School, in Mountlake Terrace, Washington, geometry teacher Eeva Reeder began implementing performance-based assessments when she recognized a disturbing pattern among her students: They could pass a test with flying colors but had considerable difficulty transferring knowledge and skills from one unit to the next.

Students in Eeva Reeder's geometry class at Mountlake Terrace High School, near Seattle, spend six weeks applying their geometry skills to the challenge of designing a school for the year 2050.

Credit: Edutopia

Her response to this dilemma was to incorporate projects into her geometry class -- small-scale projects at the end of each unit of study, as well as a longer-term culminating project -- that require students to apply the abstract skills and formulas to real-world settings.

Completing a project, says Reeder, "is the true test of what you know. You can watch a show where Julia Child makes a soufflé, and you can read about soufflé making," she adds, but the real test is "making one yourself."

In Reeder's class, the true test of her students' geometry skills is an architectural challenge. In six weeks, students must design a high school that will meet the needs of students in 2050. Working in small teams, students are required to develop a site plan, create a scale model, prepare cost estimates, and write a formal proposal. They must also present their plan to their classmates and a group of architects who serve as mentors and judges throughout the project.

Assessment of the design projects occurs in several ways. At the beginning of the project, students are given the scoring rubric by which their work will be measured. Each part of the project is evaluated based on quality and accuracy, clarity and presentation, and concept. Reeder also evaluates teamwork (participation, level of involvement, quality of work as a team member) during the course of the project and at the end.

"There are two reasons for assessment," says Reeder. "One is to provide students feedback on the quality of their work and specifically on how they might improve that quality. The other is to assign a score or grade." Scoring is the easy part, she adds, and can be accomplished with the help of what she calls a "reasonably prepared" test.

"But you can't assess a student's deep understanding of a subject and their ability to apply a concept through a traditional paper-and-pencil, crank-out-the-formulas kind of assessment," says Reeder. "It has to be done with a performance assessment."

Assessing Student Growth

One common form of performance assessment is the development of a student portfolio -- a cumulative record of a student's work over time. It's a practice that's been used at the Key Learning Community, a K-12 school in Indianapolis, since the school first opened its doors in the fall of 1987.

Project learning and student presentation of work is an integral part of the Key Learning assessment program. Every semester, students select and research a project that corresponds to a schoolwide theme. These presentations are documented on videotape, and by the time a student completes eighth grade, he or she has a portfolio documenting as many as 25 projects.

In 1999, Key Learning opened its high school (beginning first with a single class of ninth graders), and with the older students came a move toward improved use of new technologies to capture student work. Now, students begin creating Apple iMovies in middle school and continue using the program throughout high school to document and present their work.

Student progress reports (there are no traditional report cards) are based on Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences and Ernest Boyer's theory of human commonalities.

Before earning their high school diploma, Key Learning seniors must document and demonstrate their applied knowledge in what Boyer identified as eight human commonalities. Among these are the shared use of symbols (through the creation of a major multimedia presentation), shared production and consumption (through a project on marketing and economics), and the shared sense of time and space (through a project on the history of Indianapolis or the contributions of an ethnic group to the development of the city).

As the school's eleventh graders gear up for the college application process, Key Learning is investigating ways to create smaller but representative portfolios of student work on CD-ROMs, which will be made available to college admissions departments.

Time Well Spent

Despite their many differences, these three schools share a common commitment to developing a project-rich curriculum supported and influenced by a thoughtful system of assessment. Teachers, students, and parents all understand that the most effective assessment doesn't happen at the end of a unit. It's woven throughout lessons and projects, often so seamlessly as to be indistinguishable from everyday teaching and learning.

Research papers at the Urban Academy go through multiple revisions before students and teachers alike consider them complete.

Credit: Edutopia

Without question, these high-quality performance assessments take time. The typical research paper at the Urban Academy, for example, will go through multiple revisions before the student and his or her teacher consider it complete. With each revision comes a discussion about key issues to be addressed, questions yet to be answered, and concepts that require further development.

A single proficiency might take a semester or even an entire year for a student to complete and might involve hours and hours of discussions with Urban Academy teachers and an outside evaluator. At Mountlake Terrace, Eeva Reeder spends many hours on just the logistics of her six-week-long architecture project, such as organizing field trips to local architects' office and coordinating classroom activities with the mentors' busy work schedules.

"Performance assessments do engage people in work and time. Students have to develop the performances. The teachers have to evaluate them," acknowledges Stanford's Linda Darling-Hammond. But, she emphasizes, "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 students as well as teachers. It informs teaching. It gives teachers immediate feedback about what they need to do to meet a student's needs."

And with that immediate feedback comes the ability to intervene, to change course when assessments show that a particular lesson or strategy isn't working for a student, or to offer new challenges for students who've mastered a concept or skill. In this context, says performance-assessment researcher Karen Sheingold, assessment and learning become "two sides of the same coin" rather than separate and distinct activities.

Assessment Versus Accountability

In many U.S. classrooms and schools, assessment practices aren't just about improving teaching and learning for individual students. They're inextricably bound to the public's demand for greater accountability. All 50 states administer annual assessments to their students, the results of which can determine whether a student is promoted or retained and whether teachers get bonuses or a school gets reconstituted.

Although multiple choice and short-answer tests are still the norm, states are gradually incorporating performance-based assessments into their standardized tests.

Credit: Edutopia

These tests, because of their high stakes, have an incredible influence on classroom practices. For example, nearly 70 percent of the teachers responding to a 2000 Education Week survey on standards and accountability said that state assessments were "forcing them to concentrate too much on what's tested, to the detriment of other important areas of learning." The teachers reported dropping longer units with rich assessment components in favor of more traditional lessons that reflected the type of material and format common in most state assessments.

Few would argue with the need, as Hugh Price, president of the National Urban League, says, to "know whether or not children are learning, and whether they're performing on grade level or better or way below." But when the stakes are too high, this laudable goal gets distorted. Teachers begin teaching to the test to raise scores, often at the expense of more meaningful learning activities. And when the tests are too narrow a measure or aren't properly aligned to standards, they provide little concrete information teachers and schools can use to improve teaching and learning for individual students.

Although most states continue to use multiple-choice and short-answer items on their standardized tests, a handful of states have incorporated additional measures into their annual assessments. The Maryland School Performance Assessment Program for example, is frequently commended for the thoughtful way in which it calls on students to demonstrate multiple abilities in answering a single question or problem. (See Bruce Alberts's Edutopia.org article "Appropriate Assessments for Reinvigorating Science Education.")

In addition, Kentucky and Vermont have incorporated portfolios into their statewide assessments of student achievement -- another effort to offer a broader picture of student achievement, and the now-defunct Massachusetts Reform Review Commission convened representatives from various stakeholder groups to devise a strategy for expanding the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System to make it fairer and more comprehensive.

These additions are important and necessary, says Chris Dede, a professor of education at Harvard University, in order to really understand what students know and can do. "The current reform movement is based on first-generation standards and first-generation assessments for accountability," says Dede. "And while standards and accountability are good," he adds, "the first generation is flawed. Instead of multiple indicators of what students know, we end up with a single test score that somehow is supposed to capture everything that's inside of a student's head."

Dede likens state assessments to an annual visit to the doctor and suggests that we need more, not less, information to gauge a student's knowledge and abilities.

"When I go to a doctor for a physical, it's an indicator of overall wellness," he says. "I don't just want to know about my blood pressure. I want to know about my cholesterol level and a variety of other indicators. Somebody's educational well-being is more complicated than their physical health."In our second generation's standards, we need deeper focus on fewer skills that are central to the 21st century," he adds. "And in our second-generation assessments, we need broader measures, multiple measures that look at the different kinds of things that students have learned and have mastered."

Roberta Furger is a contributing writer for Edutopia.

Comments (123)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Lindsay Semler's picture

This article is fascinating and hopeful to future teachers. I think it's important to brainstorm different ways of effective assessment, and I would love to find a job in a school district like one of these noted above. I found that what the teacher from Washington said hit a little too close to home. According to her, students "...could pass a test with flying colors but had considerable difficulty transferring knowledge and skills from one unit to the next." I, myself, remember college being somewhat of a culture shock to me. I did well in high school, but most of that "education" was teaching to the test. I don't know how much of it I actually carried with me into adulthood. We are past the point in education where we can accept that memorization and reciting is learning.

Mindy Kendall's picture

This was really interesting! I have subbed in a few classrooms that engage and assess the students as suggested here and it is really neat to see the learning! The projects and solutions that are demonstrated really show the true knowledge of the students! I just wish more school districts would evaluate this way!

Deb Lackey's picture

In the article Take a Deeper Look at Assessment for Understanding, author Roberta Furger wrote "In a classroom setting, performance assessment is an essential companion to project learning. By developing comprehensive rubrics by which to evaluate student performances, teachers ensure that projects are more than just fun and engaging activities. They're true tests of a student's abilities and knowledge, linked to standards, and documented so that everyone -- students, parents, and educators -- understands what is being assessed." I couldn't agree more! To be successful in today's work environment it's just not enough to be book smart - you must be able to apply your knowledge. Project based learning teaches students how to think at higher levels: to ask questions, to investigate and experiment - it empowers students to learn by doing. The rubric shouldn't be a surprise ending to the project. It is essential for the teacher to provide a rubric when the project is assigned so that the student is aware of the project's expectations and how these expectations are directly linked to the performance assessment of his project. Furger also wrote about Eeva Reeder, the geometry teacher at Mountlake Terrace High School in Washington: "Completing a project, says Reeder, "is the true test of what you know. You can watch a show where Julia Child makes a souffle, and you can read about souffle making," she adds, but the real test is "making one yourself." I think we need more teachers like Reeder in our schools! As aspiring teachers, I hope we are all willing to take the time to incorporate project and inquiry based learning into our classrooms. By doing so, I think it will help us to do a better job of teaching our students higher level thinking skills - essential for successful school and work careers.

Daryl Shelton's picture

Assessment is a huge piece of the education puzzle. More and more it is being discovered that standardized testing results don't give a accurate picture. Parents use them to determine the level of effort placed on education by their children. Teachers and other administrators use these assessments to justify or validate their particular teaching methods. Children want to know how others, as well as themselves, compared to the standard. I won't bore you with the obvious disadvantages of the underprivilaged based solely on content alone. I won't even mention the lack of resources as well as the lack of expectations as it relates to education. Well-crafted projects seem to be a solid way to assess older students. If a student knows that he / she will need to apply the information learned, understanding, as opposed to memorization, will be employed. In the early childhood education world, it is my opinion that the student portfolio is the best method of assessment. This assessment method allows the teacher to guage the child's progress. The most significant benefit is the ability to review the pace of the lesson for each child. The teacher can adjust the pace, faster or slower, based on a child's zone of priximal development. The traditional report card still has added value. It is absolutely necessary to know how my child is progressing quarter to quarter. Having said that, I would also like to see the progress activity to activity. The student portfolio affords me this information. The pace adjustment could be the difference between a successful school year and a lost one. This way, as a parent, I can assess the assessment.

Molly Kuntz's picture

This is a very interesting article and is helpful to teachers when it comes to assessment. Performance assessment and student portfolios seem to be the most reliable and accurate ways to assess children, yet still meet the state standards. It also leaves the school and the teachers accountable for the progress their students are making. Unlike many state-required assessments, performance assessment gives the teachers an immediate feedback to the students skill level, which can only help both the teacher and student. This article was very helpful in understanding the value of assessment as well as the alternatives that seem to be working.

Mrs. C's picture

This is all great, but what about special Ed students? I have complained for years about the inequity of standards based testing in students that are not "standard". Sure they can submit a "portfolio" but to not receive a diploma? (At least not in Mass.) They spent thirteen years in school, some have put in more effort than their regular-ed counterparts, to work that hard only to receive a "certificate of attendance"? Please, will someone recognize that there is something wrong with this picture? Lets find "alternative" assessing for our "alternative" students where they can also earn a diploma.

jray's picture

Great article on not only teaching a child but involve them in the product. I personally am a TERRIBLE standardized test taker. But let me get my hands on it and I will learn it good enough to teach others in no time at all.

MMcKibben's picture

I think the article raised valid points about the flaws in assessement as practiced in most public schools today. The problem is the mindset of those in charge. Policy makers, school administrators, as well as teachers are under the spell of the data-driven, researched based way of thinking. In one sense, that can be good. We need hard cold facts to show growth. But on the other hand, it becomes this tunnel vision effect as to how to reach the desired test results. If all of us could step back for a minute and start thinking a little more creatively, it might be seen that the alternative assessments are truly the better ways to reach both the goal of student growth and improved test scores. I like the anology of the annual physical. Let's stop just taking X-rays and start looking deeper into the whole child...maybe we should use MRIs instead:)

T George's picture

I would love to observe in one of these schools to see first hand how these schools work. I think it is a great concept but I worry that too many high stakes projects would be even more stressful to students, especially if that was the only way they were assessed. Designing a school for the year 2050 sounds like fun unless I was being graded on it in school. I think projects have to be balanced with standardized tests to give all students the opportunity to show how they learn best. I like the analogy about watching a cooking show and actually cooking.

GGQ's picture

To fairly and objectively evaluate the effectiveness of authentic assessment, it is necessary to take a closer more critical look to reveal possible deficiencies, obstacles and problems inherent within the performance based system. This article seemed biased by its failure to address the possible cons associated with performance based assessment but eager to exploit the negatives of standardized tests. To be validated, performance based assessment must be held to the same scrutiny as standardized assessment. Many questions come to mind when I think about authentic assessment: How skillful is the preparer?; Do students have the ability to skirt around their weak areas?; Even with the feedback loop, projects may be long - what intervention do we use for a student who falls short on the rubric?; Do we differentiate down from mastery to acceptable?; Will students lose out on creativity by choosing to perform well, thereby staying in their comfort zones with the style and media they select for projects?; Who is evaluating the effectiveness of performance based assessment towards student's post graduate success?; What is done with this information?; etc. I like the idea of performance based assessment, but like T George alluded to in her comment, it can have its share of stress, too.

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