Assessing Deeper Learning in Remote Education through Performance Tasks and Project-Based Learning

Doug Wren

Dr. Doug Wren is an educational assessment consultant and author of the book Assessing Deeper Learning: Developing, Implementing, and Scoring Performance Tasks. Doug worked in public education for nearly three decades, including 14 years as a classroom teacher. He recently retired from Virginia Beach City Public Schools after serving as Educational Measurement & Assessment Specialist since 2008. Before coming to Virginia Beach, Doug was Director of Research & Evaluation for the DeKalb County School District in Georgia.

For more information about Doug’s work, please go to

In an unprecedented move, the president announced on March 20 that standardized testing requirements for states will not be enforced for the current academic year. This means teachers won’t have to spend instructional time on standardized test preparation. At countless schools, test prep involves drill-and-kill exercises and students taking numerous district tests that purportedly assess their likelihood of passing the state-mandated test.

The suspension of standardized tests also means that many students will not experience test anxiety before, during, or after testing. Experts suggest that up to 20 percent of students have severe test anxiety, which typically starts in elementary school about the time children become aware of high-stakes tests and their importance to adults. On his first day of third grade, my son’s teacher announced to the class that if they didn’t pass a test in the spring, they wouldn’t go to fourth grade with their friends. Sadly, my adult son still remembers third grade as the year he stopped loving school.

More Freedom to Assess for Transfer

With a temporary reprieve from state-mandated testing, educators have the freedom to assess students in ways that support online learning. I’m not talking about traditional paper-and-pencil tests administered via computer. Multiple-choice, true/false, matching, and many short-answer tests are almost useless outside of schoolhouse walls because students simply look up the answers and plug them in.

I am referring to performance tasks. Jay McTighe’s definition of a performance task is “any learning activity or assessment that asks students to perform to demonstrate their knowledge, understanding, and proficiency.” Performance tasks allow students to show what they remember and understand by applying their knowledge; well-designed tasks also require students to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate, the highest levels of Bloom’s taxonomy.

Another viable option is project-based learning (PBL), where students engage in an authentic challenge and generate a product that demonstrates their learning. Projects address specific standards or objectives and involve deeper learning and 21st century skills such as critical thinking and communication. Evidence from 20 research studies indicates that PBL can promote learning in all four major subject areas.

There are also standardized measures that schools and districts use to gauge students’ deeper learning. The College and Work Readiness Assessment (CWRA) for secondary students and Integrated Performance Task (IPT) for fourth and seventh graders are examples of challenging, document-based performance tasks.

The table below shows what performance tasks, PBL, the CWRA, and the IPT typically assess:


Type of Assessment What It Assesses
Unit Performance Task (e.g., prompted writing essay, math word problem, science experiment, letter to an elected official) Specific content standard(s) in a subject area
Project-Based Learning/Complex Performance Task (e.g., social studies research project, architectural or book design, science fair entry) Multiple content standards across one or more subjects, higher-level thinking skills
College and Work Readiness Assessment  Analysis & problem solving, writing effectiveness, writing mechanics
Integrated Performance Task Critical thinking, problem solving, written communication


Now is a Good Time to Assess for Transfer

The unfortunate circumstances we now find ourselves in present us with an excellent opportunity to enhance teaching and learning by implementing more effective activities and assessments. Time needed for students to complete work in class is no longer a limitation, which gives teachers more flexibility in what they assign. Indeed, every assignment is “take-home,” so performance tasks and PBL and are better options for covering content while simultaneously allowing students to practice and demonstrate higher-order thinking.

A significant advantage of performance tasks and PBL is that they have the potential to bolster student self-assessment in ways traditional schoolwork cannot. When assigning long-term projects or tasks, teachers should require students to review and revise their work periodically so the final product is as good as it can be. A teacher could evaluate and provide students with feedback on drafts or unfinished products; however, learning to self-critique and improve one’s own work involves higher-order skills that will serve students well in the future.

For more information on assessing for transfer, here are links to three websites to get you started.

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