George Lucas Educational Foundation

Assessing Mastery: Practical Application Is the Key to Learning

Studies reveal that students learn best by doing.

July 1, 1997

"Teachers and administrators are committed to meaningful assessment throughout this district," says Randall Pfeiffer, teacher leader for assessment in the Upper Arlington City Schools in Columbus, Ohio. "We don't just try to plug in assessment in place of standardized testing. We use it as a guide to improve student performance."

Upper Arlington's twelve-year commitment to finding more effective ways to evaluate students is built on a foundation of solid research. After studies at nearby Ohio State University showed that numerical test results do not provide a complete picture of how students' skills develop, the district started looking for better assessment alternatives.

Teachers now evaluate students by asking them to apply their skills in ways that reflect how they are used in the real world -- a method known as performance-based assessment. Students might demonstrate their mastery of mathematics by figuring out how much it would cost to paint their own house or show their ability to write by producing a brochure.

To ensure accurate and consistent assessment results from class to class, Upper Arlington regularly provides teachers with training, opportunities to observe colleagues, and chances to have their students' work evaluated by others. As this process has evolved, the district has developed a set of performance standards -- with detailed descriptions and examples of each standard -- to guide the evaluation process at each level. Teachers also collect student work in portfolios to document progress. "Our assessment practices have not only given us a much better idea of how we need to help individual students, it's also caused the students and the community to start to reflect more on their learning," Pfeiffer concludes.

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