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The Role of Performance Assessments in Fostering Opportunities for Deeper Learning

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This post is by Elizabeth Leisy Stosich, research and policy fellow at the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE).

There has been growing interest among educators and policymakers in using classroom-based performance assessments as a means for promoting deeper learning among students. Since performance assessments require students to construct an original response, rather than simply recognize a correct answer, they can assess many of the so-called "21st century skills"--critical thinking, inquiry, communication, collaboration--that are essential for success in our rapidly changing world but poorly measured by many assessments.

I recently had the opportunity to learn from a team of four experienced fourth-grade teachers while conducting research on how teachers in high-poverty schools are changing their practices to meet the Common Core State Standards (learn more). These four women were early adopters of the Common Core State Standards, and they were all learning to use performance assessments for the first time. These teachers described using performance assessments that engaged students in conducting research, planning for and leading debates about real world problems, and communicating their ideas through multimedia presentations. For these teachers, the process of using model performance assessments and developing their own performance assessments helped them learn how to create authentic learning experiences that would prepare their students for success in adult life.

When these teachers first saw a model curricular unit and performance assessment, all four teachers viewed the materials as too difficult for their students. A special education teacher on the team described the experience:

The students had to look at political cartoons. They had to read articles. My first thought was, this is way too hard for my students. But we [our teacher team] spent months on it. We just picked apart every article.... We used graphic organizers. Then they were able to meet those Common Core standards of writing opinion pieces using evidence from the articles. I was very shocked at how well my students did. I feel like the Common Core holds you to these high standards and these high expectations, and you'd be surprised what you can do and what your students can do if you stick to these standards.

This teacher and her three colleagues all described changing their expectations for the kind of work they and their students could accomplish after their success engaging students in this in-depth learning experience and performance assessment. Using, developing, scoring, and analyzing information from performance assessments can serve as a powerful learning experience for teachers about the implications of standards for their classroom practice and support them in learning to teach to the more demanding expectations of the Common Core State Standards. Although using performance assessments for the first time required a great deal of collaborative work for teachers, they viewed this extra work as worthwhile because of the meaningful learning it promoted among their students.

What limited opportunities for deeper learning among students in these teachers' classrooms? The new state tests. The district and state in which these teachers worked encouraged teachers to engage students in extended projects and performance assessments in their classrooms. However, the state developed its own end-of-year assessments that were described as "aligned" to the Common Core State Standards but relied heavily on multiple-choice test items designed to assess discrete knowledge and skills rather than the application of this knowledge. These four teachers viewed the state tests and their efforts to use performance assessments in their classrooms as, in the words of one teacher, "two totally different things." This teacher explained, "We'll start off doing Common Core up until February, and then it's test prep." In her view, teaching to the Common Core meant engaging students in rich and authentic opportunities for learning and application; whereas, the end-of-year state assessments were a one-time event that required frequent practice with test-prep workbooks.

In contrast to the state assessments described above, the new consortia assessments, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), include short, constructed-response items and more extended performance tasks that allow students to apply their knowledge or explain their answer. The consortia assessments are a great improvement over many previous assessments. Nevertheless, the consortia assessments cannot measure students' abilities to plan and conduct extended research, collaborate with others to define and solve problems, communicate orally, or use scientific tools. Systems of assessment that draw on multiple forms of assessment are necessary to create a more complete picture of students' readiness for college and career.

As David Conley and Linda Darling-Hammond have documented, when state systems of assessment focus on narrow measures of performance--multiple-choice items measuring discrete bits of information--rather than opportunities for students to demonstrate a broad range of knowledge and skills needed for success in college and career, assessments constrain rather than promote opportunities for deeper learning. This can have particularly harmful consequences for students in high-poverty schools, since these schools are typically under the greatest pressure to improve students' performance on assessments.

In some states, the work these four teachers were doing to engage their students in authentic opportunities for applying their knowledge through performance assessment is an essential element of their systems of assessment. The Innovation Lab Network's (ILN) Performance Assessment Project, a working group of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), supports member states in developing systems of assessment that include performance tasks designed to measure deeper learning. Led by the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE), the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity (SCALE), and the Educational Policy Improvement Center (EPIC), the ILN's Performance Assessment Project is developing an online resource bank of performance tasks and the resources that support their use, including high-quality performance assessments that have been piloted with teachers; professional development resources in developing, using, and scoring performance assessments; and policy frameworks for integrating performance assessment in systems of assessment. The ILN's Performance Assessment Resource Bank will include high-quality tasks that engage students in multiple-step and extended performances, such as researching and developing mathematical models to write an article on the rising cost of college tuition. As tasks become more complex and require greater student direction they assess more complex and integrated aspects of learning and require the planning, problem-solving, and persistence that are necessary for success in the real world.

ILN states have already taken important steps in developing systems of assessment that provide more coherent guidance for the meaningful learning opportunities in which they expect all students to engage. For example, New Hampshire's approach to developing a system of assessments is based on the principle that "large-scale assessment should signal the kinds of learning expectations coherent with the intent of the standards and the kinds of learning demonstrations we would like to see in classrooms." New Hampshire's Performance Assessment for Competency Education (PACE) system uses common performance tasks with high technical quality and locally designed performance tasks with clear technical guidelines to assess how well students can apply complex skills and transfer knowledge to demonstrate essential competencies for career and college readiness. This approach integrates assessment in students' classroom learning experiences and reduces the level of standardized testing. 

Similarly, Kentucky has multiple efforts under way to incorporate performance tasks in their systems of assessment. Education leaders in Kentucky recognize that multiple-choice tests cannot measure students' abilities to engage in hands-on investigations or use scientific tools and are working with teachers to develop performance tasks that assess the Next Generation Science Standards.

For students to have opportunities for deeper learning, state systems of assessment must include opportunities for applying knowledge and skills to the real problems students will face in college and career. The Innovation Lab Network's Performance Assessment Resource Bank will launch at the end of this summer and provide high-quality resources--performance tasks, task development guidance, scorer training resources, policy recommendations, and more--to support states and districts in designing systems of assessment that promote meaningful opportunities for learning and application.






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