Making sure assessment improves learning

iStock_000014316766XSmallThe most important reason to develop and implement performance-based assessment is to improve teaching and increase learning. Kate Jamentz, Director, California Assessment Collaborative, reports on the first four years of the Collaborative’s efforts to support the development and implementation of performance-based assessments designed chiefly by teachers.

The Collaborative is studying 30 classroom-, school-, and district-based assessment development projects that vary in size, scope and grade level. All participants are working to develop performance tasks that guide instruction and build the capacity of teachers, students and schools to improve their work.

To illustrate how performance assessments must be used in order to improve learning and teaching, Jamentz writes that an exhibition of student work is little more than a show if it takes place on the last day of school. Similarly, a student’s portfolio amounts to little more than a work folder if teachers and students do not have the time or skills to understand what it says about what a student knows and needs to learn.

Four key practices

To ensure that assessment serves instruction, the Collaborative’s projects incorporate four key practices.

  • First, standards and assessment design are described so that teachers, students and parents understand them clearly. The first task on a project is to
    have teachers decide together what students ought to learn. Teachers debate the meaningfulness of tasks, decide what menu of assignments should guide the composition of a portfolio and discuss criteria for interpreting and scoring student work. Typically, project teachers invent a new assessment such as a portfolio design, then test it with students, then rethink, revise and retest it.
  • Second, teachers translate standards into instructional plans. Teachers rewrite standards in their own words and attach examples of student work to each standard that exemplify unacceptable, adequate and outstanding performance. Portfolio assessment requres that teachers have the knowledge, time and skills to determine what students know and still need to learn. Teachers develop these capabilities by examining students’ work samples and by breaking down complex performance tasks to isolate the exact knowledge and skills students need in order to do well on the assessment. Teachers are given opportunities to collaborate during the school day on the analysis of student work and to plan appropriate instructional improvements.
  • Third, students’ capacity to use self-assessment to improve their learning is developed. Schools put performance standards in language that students can understand and use. Like teachers, students need opportunities to express standards in personally meaningful terms and to examine scoring rubrics and exemplary responses. Students in project schools practice self-assessment and work to improve their performance. Teachers pose questions in a way that encourages students to reflect on their work and compare it to specified standards. Students must receive feedback on their work and on their self-evaluation of that work.
  • Fourth, the consequences of assessment are monitored to gauge their impact on teaching and learning. Assessment data in these schools is not used to label students. The data simply provides information on what students currently do well and pinpoints what they still need to learn. Schools and teachers use the results to determine appropriate learning experiences and to guide the redesigning of school programs so that teacher and student performance improves. Improvements come not only from having new assessment tools, but from having created them.

Active participation in the process of debating, building consensus, inventing tasks and learning to interpret student work is critical in effecting instructional improvement with performance-based assessments. Jamentz concludes that instructionally sound assessment requires more than the importation of new tasks and standards. The real challenge in assessment reform is structuring an opportunity for educators to work together to develop class lessons closely linked to those assessments which enable students and teachers to improve their performance. 

“Making Sure That Assessment Improves Performance”, Educational Leadership,Volume 51, Number 6 March 1994 pp. 55-57

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