Four Things to Consider About Performance Assessments

by Stanley Rabinowitz

Local school leaders must determine when performance-based assessments are the best tool for accomplishing important instructional and accountability goals.

On the one hand, teachers appreciate the instructional validity of many performance tasks. However, information from multiple-choice assessments (or from multiple-choice plus constructed-response tasks) may be the most efficient means of answering specific policy concerns.

You can use the following questions to make this determination:

• Is there truly a need for the evidence a performance assessment can provide?

Performance tasks are expensive and time-consuming to develop, implement, score and report. Local programs should develop or adapt assessment tasks only for those content areas in which students are known to be performing poorly and/or on students who have been performing below standard. It may also make sense to use them to assess areas in which local decision-makers are simply not satisfied with the data yielded by other types of tests.

• Can you ensure assessment results that are timely and user-friendly?

A common complaint about the use of performance assessment is the length of time from administration to reporting. Results must be available when needed for important decisions: designing a student's education plan; placing students in an appropriate program or course; or determining whether an instructional program should be continued or revised.

Equally important, results must be provided in a user-friendly format for students, teachers and parents. Because performance events yield more complex, unwieldy and unfamiliar information than that obtained from multiple-choice tests, care must be taken in the design and interpretation of reports for intended audiences.

• Is this assessment affordable?

Many great assessment ideas fail because planners have underestimated the effort and resources required to implement them. Teachers tend to underestimate the amount of time necessary for students to complete complex tasks, while administrators tend to underestimate the degree of support required for teachers and students to be successful. Also, it is often better to begin using performance assessments in one grade and one content area rather than jumping headfirst into all subjects across grades.

This more targeted approach requires setting clear priorities, and it may ruffle some feathers among those whose feel their students or their content areas are being left behind. However, the consequences of trying to move ahead in a less-focused manner can be a legacy of failure-and skepticism about any assessment innovation.

• Is performance assessment worth it?

Even if they have answered the first three questions positively, local staff should take a step back and ask themselves whether there is a more efficient method of getting the information they need about student learning.

How much better must a performance-based approach be to justify its use over a traditional multiple-choice counterpart? This question can only be answered through an analysis of needs and available resources. Costs need to be considered not just in fiscal terms, but in terms of lost or gained opportunities. Questions you might consider: What things would we not be able to do if we developed these assessments? What would be the cost of failure?