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Performance-Based Assessment: Reviewing the Basics

Performance-based assessments share the key characteristic of accurately measuring one or more specific course standards. They are also complex, authentic, process/product-oriented, open-ended, and time-bound.

December 7, 2015
Photo credit: DFID - UK Department for International Development via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Recently, I attended a workshop on performance-based assessments. I walked into the workshop a complete skeptic thinking this was just another education fad, but by the end of the first day, I was hooked! I was eager to work with teachers on creating performance-based assessments, but I did a little research first. Here is what I found.

Performance-based assessments have recently experienced a reemergence in education literature and curricula. In the 1990s, performance-based assessments became a valid alternative to traditional multiple-choice tests. In the years that followed, legislative requirements shifted the emphasis to standardized testing, which caused a decline in nontraditional testing methods (Darling-Hammond & Adamson, 2013). Currently, more school districts and universities are seeking authentic measures of student learning, and performance-based assessments have become increasingly relevant.

What is a performance-based assessment?

The definition of performance-based assessments varies greatly depending on author, disciple, publication, and intended audience (Palm, 2008). In general, a performance-based assessment measures students' ability to apply the skills and knowledge learned from a unit or units of study. Typically, the task challenges students to use their higher-order thinking skills to create a product or complete a process (Chun, 2010). Tasks can range from a simple constructed response (e.g., short answer) to a complex design proposal of a sustainable neighborhood. Arguably, the most genuine assessments require students to complete a task that closely mirrors the responsibilities of a professional, e.g., artist, engineer, laboratory technician, financial analyst, or consumer advocate.

What are the essential components of a performance-based assessment?

Although performance-based assessments vary, the majority of them share key characteristics. First and foremost, the assessment accurately measures one or more specific course standards. Additionally, it is:

  1. Complex
  2. Authentic
  3. Process/product-oriented
  4. Open-ended
  5. Time-bound

Normally, students are presented with an open-ended question that may produce several different correct answers (Chun, 2010; McTighe, 2015). In the higher-level tasks, there is a sense of urgency for the product to be developed or the process to be determined, as in most real-world situations.

How can teachers create performance-based assessments for their students?

Most recently, I worked with a high school math teacher to create a performance-based assessment for a unit on probability. Below is a simplified version of our planning, loosely based on the backward design process:

1. Identify goals of the performance-based assessment.

In this instance, the teacher wanted to challenge her students to use critical thinking and problem-solving skills. She also wanted them to exhibit less codependence and more individuality while completing this assessment. The teacher did not want students to rely on her direction about how to complete each step of the assessment.

2. Select the appropriate course standards.

Once the goals were identified, she selected the Common Core standards to be addressed with this performance assessment. She decided that the assessment should measure students' understanding of conditional probability and rules of probability.

3. Review assessments and identify learning gaps.

This was a very important step. We looked at the current worksheets that students were completing for the unit. Two-way frequency tables were a large part of the assignments. Next, we looked at what was missing and noted that there was very little relevant real-world application. As a result, we decided to create a performance-based assessment that was also reality-based. Moreover, this task would require students to analyze two-way frequency tables along with other charts and graphs.

4. Design the scenario.

After brainstorming a few different scenarios, we settled on a situation where the students would decide if an inmate should be granted parole or remain in prison. This scenario included five key components:

  • Setting
  • Role
  • Audience
  • Time frame
  • Product

(See the Public Comments Session example below.)

5. Gather or create materials.

Depending on the scenario, this step may or may not be needed. For this particular assessment, we wanted students to calculate the probability of the inmate returning to prison. For their review, I created seven different documents that included pie charts, bar graphs, and two-way frequency tables. All of the information was based on statistics from government agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Prisons and Bureau of Justice Statistics.

6. Develop a learning plan.

We wanted to be careful not to "teach to the test" in preparing students for the performance-based assessment. We needed to strike a balance between teaching the content (e.g., probability given two independent events) and preparing students for the task (e.g., interpreting the validity of a media resource). We brainstormed six different formative assessments that would need to be in place before students completed the performance task. However, we also acknowledged that this part of our plan would need to be constantly reviewed and revised depending on student learning needs.

Example: Public Comments Session


Ashley, an inmate at Texahoma State Women's Correctional Institution, is serving three to five years for embezzlement and assault. After three years, this inmate is up for parole. Once a month, the Inmate Review Board offers Public Comment Sessions. The sessions are open to all interested parties who want to voice their support or opposition to an inmate's release from prison.


You are Ashley's former probation officer, and the warden requested that you attend the Public Comment Session. You have been asked to review the following documents and present your opinion: Should Ashley be released from prison early or stay for the remainder of her sentence? You have been granted three to five minutes to speak to the review board. Your speech must be short, but detailed with strong evidence to support your decision.


  1. Criminal history report
  2. Article announcing a new web series on embezzlement
  3. Blog post about prison nurseries
  4. Letter to the parole board from the inmate's mother and son
  5. Newsletter about the incarceration rates in the state
  6. Press release about a prison-work program
  7. Research brief on the recidivism rate of nonviolent offenders

I welcome your thoughts about performance-based assessments in the comments section below.


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