Project-Based Learning (PBL)

How PBL Prepares Students for CCSS Test Performance Tasks: Part 1 – Defining the Tasks

May 20, 2014 Updated May 1, 2014
Photo credit: Thinkstock

The Common Core calls for an assessment system that cannot be entirely based on multiple choice test items. The standards ask students to demonstrate complex competencies that go beyond the basic knowledge and skills commonly tested -- and testable -- in the traditional format.

Why CCSS Requires Performance Tasks

About half the Common Core states will be using tests developed by Smarter Balanced, and the other half will use tests from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). When these two organizations tried to interpret the Common Core and create a measurable assessment of student achievement, they realized that some of the standards required performance assessment -- judging the quality of the actual application of a skill.

Smarter Balanced interpreted the English Language Arts standards by distilling them into four major claims to measure and score. See if you can imagine multiple-choice test items that could adequately measure them all:

  1. Students can read closely and analytically to comprehend a range of increasingly complex literary and informational texts.
  2. Students can produce effective writing for a range of purposes and audiences.
  3. Students can employ effective speaking and listening skills for a range of purposes and audiences.
  4. Students can engage in research and inquiry to investigate topics, and to analyze, integrate and present information.

Or, consider the four major claims Smarter Balanced developed for the Math standards:

  1. Concepts and Procedures: Students can explain and apply mathematical concepts and interpret and carry out mathematical procedures with precision and fluency.
  2. Problem Solving: Students can solve a range of complex well-posed problems in pure and applied mathematics, making productive use of knowledge and problem-solving strategies.
  3. Communicating Reasoning: Students can clearly and precisely construct viable arguments to support their own reasoning and to critique the reasoning of others.
  4. Modeling and Data Analysis: Students can analyze complex, real-world scenarios and can construct and use mathematical models to interpret and solve problems.

Let's look more closely at how the ELA standards could be assessed. Claim 1 lends itself the most to the multiple-choice testing format, and this is how reading comprehension has typically been measured. Claim 2 could be partially measured by selecting the best-written sentence or the proper grammar from a list. But to really judge how well someone can write, they'd need to, well, write something. Same for Claim 3. But Smarter Balanced saw there was no way they could measure Claim 4 without having students actually engage in a research and inquiry task in which they "analyze, integrate and present information."

A Sample ELA Performance Task

To meet the need for performance assessment, Smarter Balanced contracted with the Stanford Center for Assessment, Equity and Learning (SCALE) to help create performance tasks for the ELA standards. On the Smarter Balanced CCSS test, after a multiple-choice section, students will be met with one performance task in ELA and one in Math. Justin Wells, now with Envision Learning Partners, was part of the team at SCALE. He offers this example of an eighth grade research task designed to give students a score for Claim 4. It spans two days and has three parts:

Part I

First, the teacher engages students in a 30-minute "Introductory Classroom Activity" that begins with a data table of statistics showing how much young people read as they age. The class discusses trends and patterns they see in the data -- such as that young people read less at age 17 than they do at age 9 – and then students pair up to interpret the data, offering reasons for the trend. In a concluding whole-class discussion, the teacher explains that the rise of Internet use is a commonly-proposed explanation, but this is also widely challenged. Students are then told they will be participating in a performance task in which they will read about the debate over the Internet's effects on young people's reading and write an argumentative essay taking a stand on the issue.

This part, obviously, is not at all like what usually happens during high-stakes testing, in which the teacher is definitely not supposed to interact with students. Justin notes wryly, "It took a while for the test makers to see that this was not cheating."

Part II

The second part is the research phase. It begins with a realistic scenario: a community library must decide how to spend money -- buy more young adult fiction books, or buy more computers? Then students are shown the results of a mock-Google-search page with preselected texts from various sources. The test takers read and must carefully evaluate the texts, since some of them are contradictory or lack credibility.

Part III

In the third part of the performance task, students decide where they stand on the issue of how the library should spend its money. Using evidence from the texts to make their argument, students write a letter to the editor of the local newspaper.

"Evidence-based reading and writing" is a good way to summarize what the Common Core reading and writing standards are all about. Not coincidentally, that phrase is also the title of a section of the new SAT test we heard reports of a few weeks ago. David Coleman, the new head of the College Board, was formerly a key architect of the Common Core.

Editor's Note: This is the first of a two-part post adapted from a report on the Buck Institute for Education's Google+ Hangout of April 9, 2014 with Justin Wells of Envision Learning Partners and BIE National Faculty member Andrew Miller. Justin was formerly at the Stanford Center for Assessment, Equity and Learning (SCALE), where he developed prototype performance tasks for the Smarter Balanced assessment of the Common Core State Standards. He taught English and social studies at the Envision Schools, and is featured in videos available at, including Propositions Project.

In the second part of this post, John Larmer writes about how PBL aligns with a Smarter Balanced performance task and how PBL teachers can prepare students for the test.

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