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Aurora Institute

How Can I Tell if a School is Using Performance Assessments?

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Laurie Gagnon and Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Create Balanced Systems of Assessments

Laurie Gagnon
Laurie Gagnon

Project-based learning, problem-based learning, projects, tasks, performance tasks, performance assessments…

When visiting schools over the last several months, I’ve found myself a bit confused about the variety of terms used by teachers to describe their pedagogical philosophy, instructional approaches, and assessments. It becomes even more complicated when teachers start talking about the variety of instructional strategies they use to develop a “personalized approach” for all of their students.

I turned to Laurie Gagnon, Director of Quality Performance Assessment at the Center for Collaborative Education, to help me figure this out. Below is a summary of our conversation:

Question: Laurie, how do you make sense of all of these terms: project-based learning, problem-based learning, projects, tasks, performance tasks, performance assessments…

The array of terms can create confusion in the field, which can make it challenging to focus on what works to support learning for all students. In my view a) performance tasks and performance assessments are interchangeable terms and b) that, while not the same, performance assessment and project-based learning are also not mutually exclusive—good project-based learning will have performance assessment embedded within it; however, it is also possible to implement performance assessment with other pedagogies.

Thus, not every school has to do project-based learning all of the time. There should be different entry points for teachers, in all different types of schools, to do performance assessments. It is important is to have assessments that are designed to allow all students to apply their learning at a deeper level.

Question: When I visit schools, what should I be looking for to understand where they are in their development of a system of performance assessments?

There are two sets of questions that will help you understand a school’s or teacher’s approach to performance assessments—context and collaboration.

What is the Context? The context is key to understanding any one performance assessment. In order to understand any one performance assessment, it’s important to understand the context. I think of this as the rhythm of the system of assessments within the school. Good questions to ask to get a sense of the rhythm might include:

  • How has the school organized its learning and assessments?
  • Where are you in terms of how the learning is unfolding for the students? Are they starting a new module, working on a new concept or skill, or applying concepts and skills they have learned to new situations?
  • What is the purpose of the assessment: is it within a unit or project, or is it a yearlong or culminating project such as a capstone?

How Are Teachers and Students Collaborating? Performance assessments provide opportunities for teacher and student collaboration. Questions you might ask include:

  • How do teachers share their work together through designing and validating tasks, calibrating student work scoring, revising tasks, sharing instructional strategies, etc.?
  • How do students share their work with each other through collaborative work, peer review, etc?
  • Are there portfolio reviews, exhibitions, or other opportunities where students present to authentic audiences, such as members of the community, parents, or other students?

Question: I try to look at the specifics of how schools are developing their competency-based structures, such as competency frameworks, rubrics, and examples of student work. When I’m looking at example of assessments, what should I look for in terms of a well-designed performance assessment? Given that we are on a steep learning curve about how to integrate performance assessments into our education system, I want to know what should I look for to help me evaluate if the performance assessments are “good enough.”

There are two things you want to look for—the features of the performance assessments and indicators of quality.

Features: Performance assessments are developed and shaped by three elements that can generate a range of tasks that can meet different purposes and engage student in different ways.

  • Learning Targets: What you want students to know and be able to do. The learning targets may be content, process, or critical thinking/higher order skills (or a combination of all three).
  • Scope: The design of the assessment may be inquiry-based or asking for the demonstration of specific standards (or somewhere in between).
  • Time: The structure of the task or assessment over time and the degree of concentration or intensity of time will influence the degree of inquiry and depth of learning.

Quality: Students should know what they are supposed to be learning and what proficiency looks like. They should also know why they are doing something, especially in an assessment at recall, comprehension levels, or early in a new unit. There are three other attributes that indicate that the performance assessment is well-designed:

  • The performance task should include some deeper learning. That is to say, I should listen for all the words at Level 3 and 4 in Webb’s Depth of Knowledge.
  • The performance task should have some real-world context or relevance to the students.
  • Students should be applying skills to a new context. This is the big difference between a competency and a standards-based system—we look for the application of skills to a new context to be assured that students are reaching a level of proficiency or competency.

In some schools—especially those using project-based learning—the assessments are going to be deeply embedded into the learning. Rose Colby and Andrew Miller have described this as “The Project is the Learning.” If you do something out of context it will never be as rich or meaningful as those assessments that are embedded in the learning.

However, it’s possible to have students do projects that are not intentional about the skills being developed, that lack transparency, and that don’t have a high level of alignment between learning targets and assessment. At schools that use project-based learning as their primary pedagogical approach, be sure to ask what they want students to learn, how they are embedding assessment, how they know a student has reached proficiency, and how are they using their assessment data to drive, adjust and inform future instruction—just as you would at any school.

Question: Is there anything else I should be keeping an eye out for regarding performance assessments when I visit schools?  

Be sure to ask whether all students are engaged with performance assessments, as we also want to ensure equitable access to deeper learning.

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.