What is performance assessment?

Performance assessment is a summative assessment tool that’s increasingly used as a substitute for high-stakes testing. It’s intended to focus more on practical or applied skills—more “do you know how to use your knowledge?” versus “tell me what you know.” Other common terms include “authentic assessment” or “performance based assessment.”

The assessment itself can be an individual or group project, a portfolio (with potentially one or more pieces foregrounded) or an open-ended response exercise. The creation process of the work is then graded according to a set of pre-agreed criteria or checklist, shared with the student in advance.

This is the “performance” part of the “performance assessment”—and this accountability for process is what sets it apart from grading a regular assignment.

Performance assessment: Why now, and why in higher education?

Standardized testing is becoming increasingly outdated in K–12 contexts. According to a report published jointly by the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment and the Center for Collaborative Education, this kind of summative assessment exacerbates racial and class differences while failing to properly assess skills pre-higher education. A new Quality Performance Assessment scheme is underway to “engage students in ways that standardized tests cannot, giving students more say in how they demonstrate their knowledge in culturally responsive ways.”1

If this kind of shift in assessment is truly underway for the freshmen of the future, performance assessment is worth considering sooner rather than later.

Why use performance assessment?

Here are some benefits of performance assessment over standardized testing:

1. Performance assessment looks at higher-order thinking skills and practical application, as well as other features such as time management and clear communication, which would be just as critical as knowledge and skills in an applied environment. This leads to a deeper and more meaningful learning experience—the ultimate goal.

2. High-stakes standardized testing is only able to evaluate whether students know enough about a subject to take a test in it. Performance assessment measures whether students can apply the knowledge appropriately in various contexts.

3. If interim goals are created and applied correctly, performance assessment allows students to monitor themselves—and metacognition, even in a test environment, is enormously beneficial to understanding.

4. Any instructor who uses performance assessment to assess students will need to include in the curriculum the standards she or he expects and the steps that they must take in applying the knowledge. This makes “teaching to the test”… actually a positive attitude.

5. Performance assessment goes hand-in-hand with modern teaching strategies such as active learning or blended learning. If a student undertakes collaboration and discussion in a classroom context (and in formative assessment), those learned skills will be more easily applied and evaluated in summative assessment.

How does performance assessment work?

The educator sets a task for which there is more than one route to completion, or a project with considerable leeway for interpretation.

Students must reach an answer—but the answer is not the most important part: the journey is the destination. Students must demonstrate competencies in production, communication and applying their skillset.

The most effective way of measuring this is by assigning a list of performance tasks, along with an achievement level for each. This list should be reasonably comprehensive and scoring each task should take place on a scale.

These tasks can reflect industry best practices. For example, on a computer science performance assessment, a task could be “Did the candidate effectively document their code?” That task could be measured on a grade of “not achieved”, “partly achieved” or “fully achieved.” An art or video project task could be “Did the student correctly gather requirements?” Final scores can then be calculated from this list.2

The key to performance assessment is that students develop how they approach their tasks while understanding the standards to which they will be evaluated.

What you need to make performance assessment successful

1. Templates and rubric

Performance assessment for the student will be a balancing act between the open-ended nature of the project, and the competencies and mastery they need to demonstrate. You can either share the full guidelines of how the project will be graded with your students, or, if that is likely to overwhelm your class, build templates for intermittent assessment that explain what must happen at each stage and when. (For instance, an abstract, a first draft, and one for the final presentation.)

2. Examples / Benchmarks: Good (or bad)

Students who are set open-ended tasks for summative assessment, or items to create for their portfolio, will find previous examples crucial to success. These examples could be ‘ideal’ versions of work for them to follow, but another option is to also create flawed or low-quality work and use them in teaching—students can then try evaluating and discussing in class what they would improve, why and how.

3. Help your students prepare and practice

Although many of your students will have been set performance assessments in the past, there will be others to whom the concept is completely new. Setting milestones, in the form of mini-performance assessments, in preparation for the final tally will help them get used to thinking in a new way, and reduce anxiety that might affect their overall performance.

4. Leverage your community

It’s rare that a performance assessment would just touch on a single course—they are almost always interdisciplinary. Don’t attempt to produce a performance assessment and the communications you need with your students alone—get assistance from fellow instructors in your field, either in your department or in your wider subject or campus area. After all, if performance assessment is meant to measure real-world application of knowledge rather than producing a facsimile of your lessons, your tasks should reflect the real world. And reality is seldom based on a single subject area.

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  1. Famularo, J., French, D., Noonan, J., Schneider, J., Sienkiewicz, E. (2018) Beyond Standardized Tests: A New Vision for Assessing Student Learning and School Quality. [White paper]. Retrieved from http://cce.org/files/MCIEA-White-Paper_Beyond-Standardized-Tests.pdf
  2. Hibbard, K.M., et al. (1996) A Teacher’s Guide to Performance-Based Learning and Assessment. Alexandria, Virg.: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.
  3. Performance Assessment. [White paper]. Retrieved from https://www.learner.org/workshops/socialstudies/pdf/session7/7.PerformanceAssessment.pdf