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Four Strategies for Integrating Performance Assessment in State Systems of Assessment

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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 is widespread agreement that test-based accountability policies under No Child Left Behind (NCLB) failed to support the meaningful learning opportunities necessary to prepare all students for success in college, career, and life. Although the law brought much needed attention to the performance of historically underserved students, NCLB's annual testing requirements led to an overreliance on "bubble" tests that emphasized low-level skills and a narrowing of the curriculum through a focus on math and reading. The recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has created new opportunities for states to use performance assessments as part of their efforts to develop systems of assessment that support deeper learning by more closely integrating assessment with curriculum and instruction.

Specifically, ESSA allows states to use multiple statewide interim assessments in reading, math, and science during the course of the academic year, rather than a single summative assessment. In addition, ESSA allows states to choose when and how to assess any additional content areas and encourages them to use assessments of higher-order thinking, including portfolios, projects, or extended performance tasks. In this way, ESSA creates greater opportunities for states to integrate performance assessments in their systems of assessment. By requiring students to apply their knowledge and skills to construct an original response, performance assessments can evaluate and support students in developing the critical abilities--such as critical thinking, inquiry, communication, and collaboration--that are essential for student success but poorly measured by many traditional assessments.

Some states have already taken steps to encourage or require the use of performance assessments to support deeper learning. My colleagues, Jon Snyder and Katie Wilczak, and I have reviewed recent state policies and initiatives and identified four main strategies for incorporating performance assessments in state systems of assessments. The efforts of these states can inform other states and districts interested in encouraging opportunities for more meaningful and authentic assessments. I describe each of these strategies and examples of how states have used these strategies below.

Strategy 1: Support teachers, schools, and districts in their use of performance tasks for formative assessment purposes.

Some states have focused on using performance assessment for formative assessment purposes, a strategy that focuses primarily on growing the capacity of educators to develop and use performance assessments to support deeper learning in their classrooms. Notably, performance assessments can serve as a powerful approach for supporting both student learning and teacher learning. The Colorado Department of Education has created Content Collaboratives, teams of teachers from across districts that work together to review and develop common performance tasks in their content area. The Content Collaboratives have created and piloted 57 performance tasks, and their work is shared in an online resource bank that is accessible to teachers in the state and nationally. By forming teams of teachers to review, develop, and pilot performance tasks, Colorado is growing the capacity of these teachers to use performance assessment in their own classrooms as well as creating a cadre of teacher leaders and model performance tasks to support the use of performance assessment statewide.

Strategy 2: Use performance tasks as one component of a graduation requirement.

Some states have adopted graduation requirements that allow for or require the use of performance assessment to earn a high school diploma, with the goal of evaluating students' ability to apply their knowledge in ways that more closely reflect the demands of college, career, and life. Although both NCLB and ESSA require annual statewide testing in grades 3-8 and once in high school in reading and math, there are no specific federal requirements for determining high school graduation. Vermont is transitioning to proficiency-based requirements for both awarding diplomas at graduation and measuring progress in secondary school. As part of the focus on proficiency-based graduation requirements, the state's Education Quality Standards require that students "be allowed to demonstrate proficiency by presenting multiple types of evidence, including but not limited to teacher- or student-designed assessments, portfolios, performances, exhibitions and projects." To support this transition, the Vermont Agency of Education is assisting educators in learning to use performance assessment to support and evaluate student proficiency by engaging teachers in the development, use, and scoring of performance tasks.

Strategy 3: Integrate performance assessments in statewide assessments or replace statewide tests with performance tasks when possible.

Many states are adopting statewide assessments that incorporate performance tasks or encouraging the use of performance assessments in subjects and grades that are not required for federal reporting purposes. For example, both of the consortia assessments, Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and PARCC, include performance tasks as a way to measure student mastery of the Common Core State Standards. As part of the Building Educator Assessment Literacy (BEAL) project, California, New Hampshire, and Oregon have engaged teachers in professional development focused on scoring student responses on the SBAC performance tasks and using Common Core-aligned performance tasks in their classroom instruction. In this way, the states are creating closer connections between statewide assessments and classroom assessment practices.

Strategy 4: Seek a waiver from the federal government to alter federal testing requirements and allow performance tasks to be used for federal accountability.

Some states have sought greater flexibility in responding to federal requirements for assessment through ESEA waivers. However, only New Hampshire was approved for a pilot to design and implement a performance-based system of assessment as part of their ESEA waiver. New Hampshire's Performance Assessment of Competency Education (PACE) pilot program aims to more closely connect curriculum, instruction, and assessment by establishing a system of assessment that integrates locally developed and curriculum-embedded performance assessments, common summative performance assessments, and Smarter Balanced assessments, rather than relying solely on standardized end-of-year assessments to measure student progress for accountability purposes. As Scott Marion and Paul Leather explain, the PACE pilot "was established to enable schools and districts to demonstrate student achievement and learning growth through means other than or in addition to standardized tests, with an emphasis on performance assessment." ESSA has the potential to support more states in redesigning their systems of assessments in ways that emphasize performance assessment. Under ESSA, up to seven states at a given time can be approved to implement an innovative assessment pilot, which could include the piloting of performance-based assessments for accountability purposes.

These four strategies provide guidance for states seeking to support more meaningful learning and assessment opportunities through the use of performance assessment. As states work to support all students in meeting ambitious standards for college and career readiness, performance assessments can serve as a powerful tool for both developing and evaluating student learning.

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