16 December 2013

Performance Based Assessment in Action

Schools across the country are administering final exams this week, and I am wondering how many of those final assessments are copy cats of the state standardized tests students will take in the spring and how many are more performance based, allowing students to demonstrate what they learned without filling in bubbles on a sheet.

Critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity are generally some of the first items tossed out the window when we think about assessment, but I believe it’s possible to create assessments that include these important attributes.  I’m not talking about traditional bubble assessments here, obviously.  Rather, I’m advocating for more performance based assessments where students can demonstrate learning and mastery of both content and skills and do it all in a more collaborative and supportive environment.

Early last week, I served as a reviewer of student performance assessments in a rural school about an hour away from where I live. I always jump on opportunities to be in schools and to see students in action.  This particular opportunity was even more delightful because it addressed another issue about which I care deeply—assessment (and doing assessment right). Part of my job involves serving on a state work group for performance based assessment, and we are looking at schools piloting Performance Based Assessments (PBA) and also thinking about how to encourage more PBA statewide.  

Some of my favorite PBA examples are interdisciplinary, allowing students to demonstrate their learning for more than one subject at a time.  What I observed last week was an assessment where students demonstrated their understanding of social studies/geography standards and concepts as well as their understanding of English language arts standards.  Eleven year-olds were articulate, thoughtful, knowledgeable, and creative.  Since the beginning of the school year, the young students had been learning what they needed to know to be prepared for their performance event.  This learning, obviously, happened in ways that moved beyond skill and drill/worksheet completion and lower level thinking.  To be prepared for their performance assessments, these eleven year-olds had to speak well, listen to others, collaborate with teammates, research, read, write, and create.

Meeting the students
While I don’t know the tiny little details that happened before I met the students, I do know what they shared with me.  Students were asked to research a different country (the group I worked with had researched Afghanistan), sixth grade students worked in teams of 3-4 to create their own country complete with its own name, geographical coordinates, country, culture, etc.  The bulk of sixth grade social studies standards in Kentucky currently focus on geography—hence this particular assignment.  Their social studies and English teachers worked together to plan lessons that addressed the various components of the project, with the research and writing skills being a focus in ELA class, and the content/geography work happening in social studies class.  They also had to write a paper that created an argument for which country was better and why—the country they researched or their made-up county.  They collaboratively wrote and edited the paper before bringing it to the presentation.  The students were very honest with us about how difficult it was to work in a group; they said at first they argued a lot about their made-up country, and their teacher worked with them on team building skills and helped them understand the importance of collaborating and creating the project together.  

Had they not so honestly told us how they struggled at first to get along, we never would have known.  The day of their presentation, they were united with a plan and presented as a team, supporting one another when another team member faltered.  The day of the presentations, students entered the library carrying a hand created map, their argumentative paper, and their confidence.  We asked students questions about each step of their research process, about their countries (both the one they researched and the one they created).  We also asked them on the spot, to apply knowledge about geographical content to present day situations. For example, we asked students to read a world map, read charts, graphs, and tables and then answer our questions which included lots of inferencing so students had to tell us why they interpreted the map in a particular manner.  

Overall, I was very impressed with the process and the end result, and knowing the school, they will continue to refine the process based on this experience. What's remarkable to note is that this wasn't just the teachers deciding to implement performance based assessments in their own classrooms.  This was school-wide performance based assessments for all courses.  Imagine the impact on learning and teaching when the focus of school-wide assessment is performance based!  I look forward to returning in the spring when they assess students over mathematics and science content in a similar performance based fashion.