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Aurora Institute

Tying It Together with Performance Assessments

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Jonathan Vander Els

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

Jonathan Vander Els
Jonathan Vander Els

During the past year, Memorial Elementary School staff has focused our learning on how to develop high quality performance assessments. Along with colleagues from other schools in our districts, we have participated in the Center for Collaborative Education’s Quality Performance Assessments training, as well as focused our professional development throughout the year. As we built our capacity over the year, it became clear that performance assessments have tied together the significant amount of work we have been engaged in over the past five years in implementing competency education.


Our district, Sanborn Regional School District in southern New Hampshire, has admittedly taken the plunge with a number of best practices designed to increase our understanding of curriculum and our ability to most effectively instruct students. This work included teachers developing “crosswalks” between the New Hampshire Grade Level Expectations and the Common Core about three years ago. This was done through professional release days and was led by our Director of Curriculum, Ellen Hume-Howard. We made the switch to assessing students’ performance only through the Common Core over the past two years. Teachers’ transition to these standards was seamless because of the support provided during the transition and the teachers’ understanding that the work we were engaged in together was helping them help our students. In fact, teachers requested that all other standards be dropped from their grade book because they understood the Core standards and the others weren’t needed for guidance any longer.

We also have been grading students through a competency-based grading system for the past four years. The pathway to effectively implementing a standards/competency-based grading system has not yet been traveled by many, so the work we have been doing has been replete with learning experiences. Each assignment is connected directly to standards, planned through a backwards-design model. Student progress is reported out through competencies, and 21st century work habits are separated from academics, allowing for a “purer” form of reporting. So, despite any bumps we have encountered, the path also has allowed us to better understand students’ needs, been a perfect complement for our tiered intervention and enrichment model, and allowed us to hone in on precisely what it is we would like students to learn – the big ideas that will carry on with students as they move forward in their learning.

Additionally, our school has worked diligently over the past six years to work collaboratively in Professional Learning Communities. This work has been, and continues to be, the foundation for all of the work we do. Our teachers are very comfortable working interdependently to affect positive change for students, regardless of the amount of additional effort this entails.

Strengthening Planning, Curriculum and Instruction with Performance Assessment

Heading into last summer, I was struggling a bit on how to most effectively support our school’s focus on our next logical goal area. The work we had been engaged in over the past few years was targeted on curriculum and instruction, and I felt we were in a great place with both. Our team leaders had discussed the need to shift our focus now to assessments, but we weren’t quite sure of the “how.”

Fortunately for us, the State of New Hampshire’s DOE, in collaboration with the Center for Collaborative Education and the Center for Assessment, was spearheading a second cohort of training related to building Quality Performance Assessments. We were fortunate to have a team of teachers interested in attending the summer conference, and their work and gained knowledge became the foundation for our school’s collaborative work throughout the year. I felt it was important for me to attend with our school’s teachers. I wanted to understand the “how” as much as the “why.”

Our team of teachers’ training in building these assessments became the groundwork for much of our staff’s PD over the course of the school year. Together, we built a plan for how the work the cohort was doing would be integrated into the professional development in our school. Our goal was to have the participants go through the various protocols related to building quality assessments, then help guide the rest of our staff during early releases and professional days.

As our November Professional Development day approached, however, it became apparent that we needed to do some additional work around a couple of key areas prior to getting into building the performance assessments. The focus on that afternoon revolved around building Essential Questions and Outcomes, Depth of Knowledge questioning, and re-familiarizing ourselves with the structure of the Understanding by Design model of unit planning. I am glad we took the time to do this, because it has allowed the performance assessment work to take off.

The culmination of our year’s work came during our last early release day in May. We asked teachers to bring a unit planning template, the performance assessment for this unit, the rubric the team developed to assess, and student work samples. We then worked in PLCs to validate each team’s performance assessment using a validation protocol, with consultation from a program assistant from the Center for Collaborative Education. A number of the assessments built by our teachers during these training sessions were recognized as exemplars, and will be posted on a “task bank” to be reviewed by outside evaluators. This process should help make these assessments even more effective in assessing student learning.

Our teachers have now implemented and incorporated these processes into their planning, they have a solid working knowledge of the Common Core standards, they have worked diligently to enhance differentiation within their instruction, but most importantly, they collaborate together in their continued efforts to hone in on students’ areas of strength and areas for growth. Their ability to look at planning, lessons, curriculum, and instruction through an assessment lens will continue to shape our work as we move forward.

Jonathan is the Director of Innovative Projects for the New Hampshire Learning Initiative, overseeing the personalized and competency-based work related to NG2: Next Generation Collaborative Learning Design and the State of New Hampshire’s efforts integrating Work Study Practices into curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

Formerly, Jonathan was principal of Memorial Elementary School in Sanborn Regional School District in New Hampshire. Under his leadership, Memorial became a nationally recognized model professional learning community (PLC) on All Things PLC ( and competency-based learning elementary school.

Jonathan lives with his wife and three children on the New Hampshire Seacoast. You can follow Jonathan via Twitter @jvanderels