Why Should We Use Performance Tasks? (Part 2)

Jay McTighe is an accomplished author, having co-authored 14 books, including the award-winning and best-selling Understanding by Design series with Grant Wiggins. His books have been translated into ten languages. Jay has also written more than 35 articles and book chapters, and been published in leading journals, including Educational Leadership (ASCD) and Education Week. JayMcTighe.com

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The case for the increased use of performance tasks rests on two foundational ideas:

  1. Authentic tasks are needed to both develop and assess many of the most significant outcomes identified in the current sets of academic Standards as well as trans-disciplinary 21st Century Skills.
  2. Research on effective learning from cognitive psychology and neuroscience underscores the importance of providing students with multiple opportunities to apply their learning to relevant, real-world situations.

In this blog post, I will explore the first foundational idea. In blog post No. 3, I will examine ways in which the use of authentic performance tasks contributes to deeper learning.

The New Standards Demand Performance

While any performance by a learner might be considered a performance task (e.g., tying a shoe or drawing a picture), it is useful to distinguish between the application of specific and discrete skills (e.g., dribbling a basketball) from genuine performance in context (e.g., playing the game of basketball in which dribbling is one of many applied skills).

Thus, when I use the term performance tasks, I am referring to more complex and authentic performances.

The most recent sets of academic standards in the U.S. —  The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in English Language Arts and Mathematics, The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), The College, Career and Citizenship Standards for Social Studies (C3) and The National Core Arts Standards (NCAS) – call for educational outcomes that demand more than multiple-choice and short answer assessments as evidence of their attainment.

Rather than simply specifying a “scope and sequence” of knowledge and skills, these new standards focus on the performances expected of students who are prepared for higher education and careers. For example, the CCSS in English Language Arts have been framed around a set of Anchor Standards that define the long-term proficiencies that students will need to be considered “college and career ready.”

The writers of the E/LA Standards make this point unequivocally in their characterization of the performance capacities of the literate individual:

“They demonstrate independence. Students can, without significant scaffolding, comprehend and evaluate complex texts across a range of types and disciplines, and they can construct effective arguments and convey intricate or multifaceted information … Students adapt their communication in relation to audience, task, purpose, and discipline.

Likewise, students are able independently to discern a speaker’s key points, request clarification, and ask relevant questions… Without prompting, they demonstrate command of standard English and acquire and use a wide-ranging vocabulary. More broadly, they become self-directed learners, effectively seeking out and using resources to assist them, including teachers, peers, and print and digital reference materials.” (CCSS for E/LA, p. 7)

The authors of the CCSS in Mathematics declare a shift away from a “mile wide, inch deep” listing of discrete skills and concepts toward a greater emphasis on developing the mathematical Practices of Problem Solving, Reasoning, Modeling, along with the mental habit of Perseverance. Similarly, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) have highlighted eight Practices, including Asking Questions and Defining Problems and Analyzing and Interpreting Data. As noted in the opening pages, these Practice are intended to actively engaging learners in “doing” science, not just memorizing facts:

“As in all inquiry-based approaches to science teaching, our expectation is that students will themselves engage in the practices and not merely learn about them secondhand. Students cannot comprehend scientific practices, nor fully appreciate the nature of scientific knowledge itself, without directly experiencing those practices for themselves.”

A graphic from the National Science Teachers Association depicts the commonalities among the practices in Science, Mathematics and English Language Arts. Note that all of these reflect genuine performances valued in the wider world:

performance tasks

In the same vein, the recently released College, Career and Citizenship (C3) Standards for Social Studies highlight a set of fundamental performances that are central to an “arc of inquiry.” These include, Developing Questions and Planning Inquiries, Gathering and Evaluating Sources, and Taking Informed Action.

The pattern is clear: the current crop of academic Standards focus on developing transferable processes (e.g., problem solving, argumentation, research, and critical thinking), not simply presenting a body of factual knowledge for students to remember. A fundamental goal reflected in these Standards is the preparation of learners who can perform with their knowledge.

Needed Shifts in Assessment

The new emphases of the Common Core and Next Generation Standards call for a concomitant shift in assessments — both in large-scale and classroom levels. The widespread use of multiple-choice tests as predominant measures of learning in many subject areas must give way to an expanded use of performance assessments tasks that engage students in applying their learning in genuine contexts. McTighe and Wiggins (2013) echo this point in a recent article, “From Common Core Standards to Curriculum: Five Big Ideas.

“This performance-based conception of Standards lies at the heart of what is needed to translate the Common Core into a robust curriculum and assessment system. The curriculum and related instruction must be designed backward from an analysis of standards-based assessments; i.e., worthy performance tasks anchored by rigorous rubrics and annotated work samples. We predict that the alternative — a curriculum mapped in a typical scope and sequence based on grade-level content specifications  – will encourage a curriculum of disconnected ‘coverage’ and make it more likely that people will simply retrofit the new language to the old way of doing business.

“Thus, our proposal reflects the essence of backward design: Conceptualize and construct the curriculum back from sophisticated tasks, reflecting the performances that the Common Core Standards demand of graduates. Indeed, the whole point of Anchor Standards in ELA and the Practices in Mathematics is to establish the genres of performance (e.g., argumentation in writing and speaking, and solving problems set in real-world contexts) that must recur across the grades in order to develop the capacities needed for success in higher education and the workplace.”

In recognition of these points, the two national assessment consortia, Smarter Balanced (SBAC) and the Partnership for Assessment and Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), have declared their intent to expand their repertoire to include performance tasks on the next generation of standardized tests.

While it is encouraging to see changes in external testing, my contention is that the most natural home for the increased use of performance assessments is in the classroom. Since teachers do not face the same constraints as large-scale testing groups (e.g., standardized implementation, limited time, scoring costs, etc.), they can more readily employ performance tasks along with traditional assessment formats.

Performance assessments such as writing an essay, solving a multi-step problem, debating an issue, and conducting research and creating an informative website ask students to demonstrate their learning through actual performance, not by simply selecting an answer from given alternatives.

By recommending an increased use of performance tasks in the classroom, I certainly do not mean to suggest that this is the only form of assessment that teachers should employ. Of course, teachers can and should also use traditional measures such as selected-response and short-answer quizzes and tests, skill checks, observations, and portfolios of student work when assessing their students.

Here’s a useful analogy: Think of classroom assessment as photography. Any single assessment is like a snapshot in that it provides a picture of student learning at a moment in time. However, it would be inappropriate to use one picture (a single assessment) as the sole basis for drawing conclusions about how well a student has achieved desired learning outcomes.

Instead, think of classroom assessment as akin to the assembly of a photo album containing a variety of pictures taken at different times with different lenses, backgrounds, and compositions. Such an album offers a richer, fairer and more complete picture of student achievement than any single snapshot can provide. My point is that our assessment photo album needs to include performance tasks that provide evidence of students’ ability to apply their learning in authentic contexts.

21st Century Skills

In an era in which students can “google” much of the world’s knowledge on a smart phone, an argument can be made that the outcomes of modern schooling should place a greater emphasis on trans-disciplinary skills, such as critical thinking, collaboration, communicating using various technologies, and learning to learn. In the paper, “21st Century Skills Assessment,” the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (2007) describes this need and the implication for assessments of students:

“While the current assessment landscape is replete with assessments that measure knowledge of core content areas such as language arts, mathematics, science and social studies, there is a comparative lack of assessments and analyses focused on 21st century skills.

Current tests fall short in several key ways:

  • The tests are not designed to gauge how well students apply what they know to new situations or evaluate how students might use technologies to solve problems or communicate ideas.
  • While teachers and schools are being asked to modify their practice based on standardized test data, the tests are not designed to help teachers make decisions about how to target their daily instruction.

The Partnership proposes that needed assessments should “be largely performance-based and authentic, calling upon students to use 21st century skills” (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2007, p. 6). I agree!

The Current Assessment Landscape

Many current classroom- and school-level assessments focus on the most easily measured objectives. The pressures of high-stakes accountability tests have exacerbated this tendency as teachers devote valuable class time to “test prep” (at least in the tested subject areas) involving practice with multiple-choice and brief constructed-response items that mimic the format of standardized tests. While selected-response and short-answer assessments are fine for assessing discrete knowledge and skills, they are incapable of providing evidence of the skills deemed most critical for the 21st century.

Dr. Linda Darling Hammond, a professor at Stanford University and authority on international education and assessment practices, elaborates on this point (2013):

As educators, we know that today’s students will enter a workforce in which they will have to not only acquire information, but also analyze, synthesize, and apply it to address new problems, design solutions, collaborate effectively, and communicate persuasively. Few, if any, previous generations have been asked to become such nimble thinkers. Educators accept the responsibility to prepare our students for this new and complex world. We also know that in our current high-stakes context, what is tested increasingly defines what gets taught. Unfortunately, in the United States, the 21st century skills our students need have gotten short shrift because our current multiple-choice tests do not test or encourage students’ use of these skills.

Ironically, the widespread use of narrow, inauthentic assessments and test prep practices at the classroom level can unwittingly undermine the very competencies called for by the next generation academic Standards and 21st Century Skills. To be blunt, students will not be equipped to handle the sophisticated work expected in colleges and much of the workforce if teachers simply march through “coverage” of discrete knowledge and skills in grade-level standards and assess learning primarily through multiple-choice tests of de-contextualized items. Moreover, such teaching and assessment practices are unlikely to develop the transferable “big ideas” and fundamental processes of the disciplines. Moreover, they deprive students of relevant and engaging learning experiences.

In order to counter to these trends, we need to significantly increase the use of authentic performance tasks that require students to apply their learning in genuine contexts. We need to assess the performance outcomes that matter most, not simply those objectives that are easiest to test and grade. Indeed, meaningful and lasting learning will be enhanced when school curricula are constructed “backward” from a series of rich performance tasks that reflect the “end-in-mind” performances demanded for college and career readiness.

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