Performance assessment is one alternative to traditional methods of testing student achievement. While traditional testing requires students to answer questions correctly (often on a multiple-choice test), performance assessment requires students to demonstrate knowledge and skills, including the process by which they solve problems. Performance assessments measure skills such as the ability to integrate knowledge across disciplines, contribute to the work of a group, and develop a plan of action when confronted with a new situation. Performance assessments are also appropriate for determining if students are achieving the higher standards set by states for all students. This brochure explains features of this assessment alternative, suggests ways to evaluate it, and offers exploratory questions you might ask your child's teacher about this subject.
What Are Performance Assessments?
The Office of Technology Assessment of the U.S. Congress described performance assessment as testing that requires a student to create an answer or a product that demonstrates his or her knowledge or skills. Examples of performance assessments include:
Group projects enabling a number of students to work together on a complex problem that requires planning, research, internal discussion, and group presentation.
Essays assessing students' understanding of a subject through a written description, analysis, explanation, or summary.
Experiments testing how well students understand scientific concepts and can carry out scientific processes.
Demonstrations giving students opportunities to show their mastery of subject-area content and procedures.
Portfolios allowing students to provide a broad portrait of their performance through files that contain collections of students' work, assembled over time.
One key feature of all performance assessments is that they require students to be active participants. They also focus attention on how students arrive at their answers and require students to demonstrate the knowledge or skills needed to obtain a correct answer. To illustrate, if high school juniors are asked to demonstrate their understanding of interest rates by shopping for a used-car loan (i.e., comparing the interest rates of banks and other lending agencies and identifying the best deal), a teacher can easily see if the students understand the concept of interest, know how it is calculated, and are able to perform mathematical operations accurately.
What Are the Advantages of Assessing My Child This Way?
Instruction in most subject areas is being altered to include more practical applications of skills and to incorporate a greater focus on the understanding and combining of content and skills.
Performance assessments closely tied to this new way of teaching provide teachers with more information about the learning needs of their students and enable them to modify their methods to meet these needs. They also allow students to assess their own progress and, therefore, be more responsible for their education.
Advocates of performance assessment believe these tests will prompt educators and school officials to identify the skills and knowledge they want their students to acquire and to focus on teaching students this information. It also provides educators with information about what students have learned, not just how well they can learn.
What Are the Disadvantages of Assessing My Child This Way?
Performance assessments usually include fewer questions and call for a greater degree of subjective judgement than traditional testing methods. Since there are no clear right and wrong answers, teachers have to decide how to grade and what distinguishes an average performance from an excellent one. This potential disadvantage can be avoided if teachers set up an evaluation rubric (rating scale with several categories) that clearly defines the characteristics of poor, average, and excellent performances so teachers can score them in a consistent manner.
Critics argue that performance assessments will not improve schooling and could be harmful. The following concerns have been expressed about performance-based assessments: teachers might teach only to the test, thereby narrowing the curriculum and reducing the test's value. When using performance assessments such as portfolios, teachers and other individuals who are grading the work may differ greatly in their evaluations. Students may be unintentionally penalized for such things as having a disability, being from a certain cultural background, or attending classes at a school with limited resources.
How Can I Evaluate Performance Assessments?
Project Appleseed encourages you to ask questions. Parents who wish to evaluate the effectiveness of performance assessments should ask the following questions:
Does the performance assessment cover important skills and knowledge?
Are the test items varied to fairly test students having different experiences, backgrounds, and motivations?
Does the assessment give my child worthwhile educational experiences?
Does the assessment require my child to use higher level thinking and problem-solving skills rather than simply memorizing to determine the answer?
Are teachers receiving training and assistance in designing and using performance assessments?
How are assessment results going to be used? Are teachers using the results to evaluate their student's performance in their own classrooms and then tailoring instruction in areas of weakness? Or are the results being compared to those in other classrooms and schools and for evaluating the teacher or school? If assessments are going to be used as accountability measures, reliability (the degree to which a test can be depended on to produce consistent results repeatedly), and validity (the extent to which a test accurately measures the result that it is intended to measure), become critically important.
How Can I Help My Child Do Well on Performance Assessments?
Students who are accustomed to traditional testing will need to be carefully prepared for these new approaches to assessment. Project Appleseed engages parent involvement in schools. Parents can help their children in the following ways:
Ask the teacher to explain the types of performance assessment to be used so that you can answer your child's questions and help him or her decide how to prepare for the assessment.
Request that the school give a presentation on performance assessment for parents.
When you talk with your child about what he or she is learning in school, ask questions that encourage problem solving or creativity. Help your child see that learning is a process and demonstrate how it is applied to real-life situations.
Ask your child if he or she understands what will be expected on the assessment. If you notice confusion or anxiety, encourage him or her to ask the teacher for help.
How NCLB Relates to Opting Out of Tests
Federal law, No Child Left Behind in particular, does not prohibit or allow opting out of tests by parents or students. The law’s requirements do give schools and districts an incentive to prevent opting out. That is because of the consequences for schools and districts of NCLB’s “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP) requirements.
If fewer than 95% of the students in a given school or district take the test (based on 3-year rolling averages) that school cannot make AYP. This is one of the many ways schools can fail. However, because many schools are already not making AYP, this may not matter. In other words, if your school or district is failing anyway, why worry about test participation? It is often said that test results affect NCLB Title I funding. However, the funding impact is indirect.
Project Appleseed provides more information about testing here.