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Aurora Institute

An Opportunity in ESSA for Performance Assessment Literacy and Teacher Leadership

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Laurie Gagnon

Issue(s): Federal Policy, Harness Opportunities in ESSA, State Policy, Create Enabling Conditions for Competency-Based Education

Ready for College and CareerThe hope of ESSA is that it will offer a rebalancing for our nation’s accountability principles by moving away from a fixation on high-stakes tests and sanctions. Many (for example, see iNACOL, KnowledgeWorks, and The America Forward Coalition) are advocating using the opportunity to foster greater innovation and implementation of learner-centered and personalized approaches to learning that focus on mastery in a competency-based environment. One key opportunity under ESSA is that seven states will be able to pilot new systems of assessment and accountability that, if designed well, have the potential to support strong, teacher-led practices that integrate teaching, learning, and assessment.

To achieve this outcome, districts will need to invest in their teaching staff, support purposeful inquiry to create cultures of growth, and think creatively about traditional barriers such as schedule and fixed marking periods. Before we know which states will follow New Hampshire’s Performance Assessment for Competency Education (PACE) pilot or develop other models, states, districts, and schools can begin to lay the groundwork needed. Moreover, a good idea is a good idea, whether or not the federal government approves. Changes in practice and in the culture of teaching and learning take time. Even if a school or district doesn’t ultimately take part in one of the seven ESSA state-level pilots, investing in a strong local system of teaching and assessment aligned to principles of student-centered learning is a good idea. It allows the district to create schools that serve students well by preparing each and every student for success in college, career, and life.

Keeping Students at the Center (The Why)

High school graduates are already expected to go further and deeper than ever before. They are expected to go beyond retaining facts and executing procedures. The world of college, work, and life requires graduates – requires everyone – to think critically, problem solve collaboratively, and innovate creatively. The Common Core State Standards, along with other college and career ready standards, have begun to shift expectations for students in this direction.

Research highlights the importance of developing and supporting students’ dispositions and skills to increase engagement and deeper learning. In Ready for College and Career? Achieving the Common Core Standards and Beyond Through Deeper, Student-Centered Learning, Karin Hess and Brian Gong find that a range of cross-cutting skills like communication, innovation, and self-regulation are crucial to student success. They propose that student-centered approaches to learning, including project-based learning and performance assessment, are a key approach to how to prepare students to succeed in postsecondary life.

Rethinking expectations of learners invites us to rethink once-standard assessment tools and create new systems to help educators and learners focus on deeper mastery of content and thinking skills. Educators need to be directly involved in the assessment process as a part of – rather than separate from – the teaching and learning cycle.

In order to do this, they need to keep the student at the center. Performance assessment systems, which allow student choice in demonstrating competency over target standards, have the potential to enable a wider array of students – across race, income, language, and disability – to succeed. This is not because performance assessments are “more rigorous” or “harder,” but because they are more authentic to the students’ passions, and more flexible in allowing the student to choose their method of demonstrating standards. It is because they allow the student to be co-creator of their learning. It is because they allow the student to go through all phases of authentic learning to achieve their goals.

Empowering Educators to Transform Practice (The How)

How do educators create performance assessments with the technical quality that accountability and equity demand?

This can be hard. Certainly it’s a break from traditional expectations and assumptions around teaching and assessment. Assessment for learning – as opposed to assessment of learning – demands a considerable level of performance assessment literacy from all educators. Creating performance tasks that are tightly aligned in their outputs (i.e., standards), but flexible in their inputs (i.e., how students learn and demonstrate learning) is tricky. Creating tasks that are also engaging, well-constructed, and aimed at deeper learning is even trickier. Schoolwide and district-wide processes that support the development, implementation, and calibration of quality performance assessments will support common understanding and equitable outcomes. This is technical quality. The protocols and practices of Quality Performance Assessment were designed specifically to help teachers ensure the technical quality of their performance assessments.

If our students are to be successful in this new era of assessment, we need teachers who are assessment champions building assessment literacy and capacity in every school. Teachers will need the skills to facilitate professional conversations with their colleagues. They will need to design, field test, score, and refine high quality performance tasks – both for formative and summative uses. In this way, assessments can spark learning in our kids, rather than just tracking it.

Teachers are the primary agents of change in any educational system. They are supported by school leaders who create conditions (in time, space, and agenda) for teachers to lead and do the work of examining the evidence of student learning and their instructional practices collaboratively and consistently. No one can do what they do not have the capacity to do. ESSA gives us the opportunity reach for new areas of assessment (and thus, curriculum and instruction), but in order to take advantage of this we have to trust our teachers. Raise their capacity to do this work, and then trust them.

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Laurie Gagnon is the Director of the Quality Performance Assessment Program (QPA) at the Center for Collaborative Education (CCE) in Boston, MA. Laurie is a key designer of the QPA model, which she has worked on since its inception in 2008, and she is leading the program’s expansion in her current role, which has done work in over a dozen states.

During the research phase she authored a qualitative study about learning from performance assessment entitled Ready for the Future: The Role of Performance Assessments in Shaping Graduates’ Academic, Professional, and Personal Lives. She was also a contributing author to Quality Performance Assessment: A Guide for Schools and Districts which describes the QPA process, designed to benefit the entire learning system, by always keeping student learning at the center and engaging educators in designing practices that align curriculum, instruction and assessment, based on evidence of what and how students are learning.