What is “Performance Assessment” and Why Should I Use it With Students?

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By Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda

Performance assessments are tasks that pose a problem, question, or challenge with no obvious answer or straightforward solution path. Students are required to consider what approach to take, monitor progress, and reexamine strategy, inquiry, and ideas as needed.

The Power of Performance Assessments

Performance assessments measure a student’s capacity to apply learning in novel, complex, and ill-defined situations.

When students regularly experience performance assessments, they become more comfortable with being uncomfortable and are more capable of independently using key habits of mind such as applying past knowledge to novel situations, questioning and problem posing, and thinking flexibly.

Real-World Accountability

Performance assessments can have natural, real-world audiences. There is a significant difference in engagement and attention to detail when the task moves from a hypothetical scenario to one where there is an expectation to share, submit, or publish.

Consider the following examples:

Assignment: Students conduct a scientific investigation where the inquiry is guided but not a “cookie cutter” lab.
Example: Students research a local environmental problem (e.g., water quality, reducing carbon footprint) to develop a hypothesis and resulting investigation.
Assignment: Students form a position on a given topic based upon evidence from multiple texts with diverse points of view or sets of data.
Example: Students develop and deliver a stump speech on a topic they feel passionately about using evidence to support their claim/point of view. They are expected to share/publish to see audience response to both their delivery and presentation of compelling evidence.
Assignment: Students develop an idea (e.g. prototype, storyboard, artistic piece) and journal what actions they took and impact it had on their process.
Example: Students create a prototype of a car for public viewing at a car show. Students create a film to showcase at a local movie theater or viewing party.

Establish an Authentic Audience

Asking students to enter competitions or include their work in public exhibitions is one way to find an authentic audience, but it’s not strictly necessary.

They can realize many of the same benefit by consulting the criteria for these events, working with teachers to find community members with the requisite evaluative expertise, and enlisting these people as audience members.

Having students work to criteria established outside of the classroom — such as industry standards or judging criteria for competitions — makes learning feel more meaningful and engaging.

An Important Investment

These performance assessments are certainly more time consuming in nature and require more attention to logistics. But the benefits are offering clarity to students as to why what they are learning is important and how it will matter to them.

Students also can have a seat at the design table to co-create the assessment through an opportunity to pose and pursue the question, tap the expertise of others within and outside of the classroom, and produce a deliverable in an authentic form that mirrors work done outside of school.

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