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Performance assessments can be an indispensable tool for teachers to measure and develop complex skills, but they are also prone to faulty conceptualization, Susan Brookhart, an ASCD Faculty member, said in her Sunday afternoon session, "Assessing What Students Know and Can Do," at ASCD Empower17.
There are plenty of "near misses" when it comes to the quality of such assessments, she cautioned.
In general, Brookhart said, performance assessments comprise two main components: They require students to create a product or demonstrate a process (the task), and they use teacher evaluation and judgment based on defined criteria (the rubric). Skeptics often characterize performance assessments as "subjective" because they hinge on educator judgment. But if the criteria for measurement are clearly described, Brookhart said, they can be as objective as "written" tests. They can also impart nuanced information on students' learning.
"Teacher judgment is a good thing," she said, if informed by systematic criteria.
Brookhart said that written tests and performance assessments shouldn't be seen as mutually exclusive, but rather as being on an evaluative continuum. Written tests are often better for measuring students' recall of facts or understanding of concepts, for example. Performance assessments, in turn, can be a more viable option for measuring higher-level cognitive skills like applying knowledge, analyzing information, and designing and creating a product.
A key part of developing an effective performance assessment, Brookhart stressed, is to carefully match both the task and the rubric to the learning goals you want to measure. It's not uncommon, she said, for performance assessments to end up hinging on skills (like oral-presentation skills, for example) that are not even a part of the current lesson unit.
Other performance assessments may result in "cool projects" but fail to incorporate higher-order learning objectives. The biggest trap in performance-assessment design is the tendency to require a lot of retelling or regurgitation of material, Brookhart said. Poster projects and even some research assignments often fall into this category.
Teachers need to be "mindful of exactly what [their] task requires of students" and what kind of evidence of learning they are looking for, Brookhart stressed. Performance assessments are most successful, she said, when they integrate skills like knowledge transfer, critical thinking, and problem solving.
Among the examples she gave of effective assessments was one that asked students to represent data on phone charges in two different ways and describe which representation would be most useful to them. Another had students publishing a "newspaper," with assorted stories and analysis, on the developments in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.
But no matter how creative the tasks, Brookhart suggested, performance assessments are only as successful as the rubrics that undergird them. She said good rubrics are made up of two components: a coherent set of criteria on the learning to be demonstrated and matching performance-level descriptions.
The descriptions should be clearly written and, again, focused on the learning objectives in question. Brookhart cautioned that many educators make the error of incorporating "counting" or "frequency scales" into rubric descriptions—for example, tabulating the number of times students cite examples or facts. Such mechanisms do not measure authentic learning, she said, and can hurt students by misrepresenting their development and understanding.
In essence, rubrics should be a form of feedback for students, showing them how to progress toward proficiency in a particular learning objective, Brookhart said. They should use student-friendly language and register different levels of thinking and understanding.
"The best of use of rubrics is formative," Brookhart noted.
Anthony Rebora is the Editor-in-Chief of Educational Leadership magazine.
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