Moving Towards Performance Based Assessments

10/1/2013 12:00:00 AM
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Along with the emphasis on the implementation of Common Core Standards, there is a huge concern over the new Smarter Balanced Assessments. Along with the traditional selected and constructed responses, there are performance tasks, requiring students to analyze and synthesize information from various digital resources. These results “will be used to better measure capacities such as depth of understanding, research skills, and complex analysis.Sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? All teachers should be jumping up and down with joy over these new developments in standardized testing. So, why do I feel like this new path is really leading to the same destination that we currently find ourselves, where students are disengaged with learning and missing those difficult to test skills such as creativity and collaboration?

What I do appreciate about the current panic over the new assessments is that it is forcing most educators to rethink the way they are teaching and districts to look at their current models of instruction. My fear is that most will look for the prescribed curriculum that will come to the rescue, and publishers are working hard to market their product as the one that will save the day.

Here in Los Altos, we are taking this year to look at performance based assessments as a district. Last year, teachers were asked to “upgrade” a unit of instruction. Our professional development centered around classroom strategies such as project-based learning, design thinking, building habitudes, finding ways to increase student voice, and more. Teachers began exploring what passion based learning looks like in their classrooms and thinking of new ways to challenge and engage every student. There is a different feel on our school sites this year as teachers started the year with renewed enthusiasm for the classroom. We are now starting to focus in on assessment and teachers will be asked to develop a new performance based assessment or elevate a current assessment for a second upgraded unit.

What I love about this district is that we are not focusing solely on Smarter Balanced Assessments. Yes, they are a reality and are something that we will be expected to know and understand, but the message is there’s more to it than acing a test. Our most important objective is creating a dynamic and engaging learning environment that creates students who have creative confidence and the skills to become productive global citizens.  (Learn more about creative confidence by watching David Kelly’s TedTalk.) We want to provide learning experiences where students can dive deep into content based on their questions and passions. We want to provide authentic assessments that strive to evaluate students mastery of content and push them to accomplish more than they thought they could. We want to become facilitators of learning, not keepers of knowledge. 
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There are many types of assessments. Formative assessments are as crucial to the learning process as the summative assessment. Guided mastery takes time and practice and gathering good feedback along the way allows students to take risks and build confidence. 
A good performance based assessment may or may not include technology but asks students to apply their learning in an authentic task and is used to evaluate how well they've mastered and understood the content. While Smarter Balance may measure some of these skills, it is crucial that educators address the bigger picture. By doing so, we will create students who are successful at life, not just the current standardized test.

cross-posted at Innovate, Create, Educate


Kami Thordarson is a graduate of the 2011 MERIT program through the Krause Center for Innovation and has led classes on project-based learning, digital storytelling, and design thinking. She is the Innovative Strategies Coach for the Los Altos School District. Read more at Innovate, Create, Educate.
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