Education World offers a brief summary of findings from a recently released study of assessment reform. Is assessment reform working? How are teachers handling new approaches to assessment? Are students and curriculum benefiting from new assessment methods approaches?
Many performance assessment tools -- essays, research projects, and other open-ended measures, as opposed to multiple-choice assessments -- are not novel. They have been used for years. What is relatively new, however, is the sweeping assessment reform movement. The movement involves the use of performance assessments to bolster state, district, or schoolwide goals. More and more often, performance assessment results are being used to adjust or revamp instruction and curriculum in addition to their traditional uses in assessing student abilities.
A recent study of assessment reform was conducted "to elucidate the nature and effects of the assessment reform movement taking place across the country." The study, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Research and Improvement, had among its major goals
During the spring of 1994 and of 1995, OERI researchers visited 16 schools that were implementing performance assessments. The sample schools included elementary, middle, and high schools in diverse geographical locations. The result of the OERI study were published recently in Studies of Education Reform: Assessment of Student Performance.
The qualitative nature of the study means it includes diverse and interesting examples of performance assessment formats.
One example of such a performance assessment comes from Noakes Elementary School in the Anton School District in Iowa, which decided to join the New Standards Project (NSP) in 1992.
The NSP is jointly run by the National Center on Education and the Economy and the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh, and it works toward developing and adopting a set of academic standards and innovative methods to measure student learning.
All teachers at Noakes, a K-6 school, use performance assessments, though in diverse ways. Some teachers use portfolios in all subject areas, others in just one subject.
The "Camel Project" was a fourth-grade English Language Arts task at Noakes that took place during four days in 45-minute class periods.
Located near Albany and Schenectady, New York, Hudson High school serves 1,400 9th through 12th graders. For assessment purposes, students in Hudson's Earth Science course were required to "conduct a long-term study that requires understanding of key scientific and geological concepts and that promotes the development of analytical, and investigative skills." Each student was provided with a rock sample. Students were instructed to:
A very different kind of assessment format is used with students at Ninos Bonitos Elementary School in San Diego, California. In 1994-95, Ninos Bonitos served 924 students in pre-K through 6th grade. Of the children, 39 percent were of Southeast Asian heritage, 46 percent were Hispanic, 5 percent were African American, and the rest were East Asians. Seventy-seven percent of the children were identified as having limited English proficiency.
For a portfolio task, a third/fourth-grade group, made up of "transitional" students who are almost, but not quite, fluent in English, spent a morning working on six computers. After receiving training in the use of educational software, their teacher had designed a performance task that had the students describe and illustrate a book they had read about problems Southeast Asian students experience as they assimilate into their new U.S. culture. As students worked, the teacher coached both writing and computer skills. Students saved their work electronically and in hard copy for their language arts portfolios, which are shared with parents three times a year.
Evidence about the effects of performance assessments on student learning are mainly anecdotal. Teachers and students talk of student motivation being higher with the change in performance assessments and thus in content. Teachers also say students are improving their writing skills and critical-thinking skills as well as, for example, their presentation skills.
The overall impression from the study is that teachers' find clear rewards for them and for students in performance assessment, but that they also voice concerns about reform methods.
Many teachers say that the overriding benefit of performance assessment is that it gives learning "real life applications" rather than having students work almost in a vacuum.
On the other hand, a number of teachers also voiced concerns that new performance assessment systems require more teacher time to develop assignments and assessments. Perhaps, some teachers indicate, this is a trade-off for more in-depth learning by students. Some teachers also fear a lack of objectivity in the scoring rubrics that are part of the new assessment.
Many students also voiced their appreciation of the "real life applications" of what they were learning and the way they were learning it. Yet some students expressed a kind of confusion at, for example, the new "thematic unit" approach. The students wanted "...more organization of themes -- everything is mixed up in themes; we don't know where we are."
If performance assessment is adopted, teachers must use the assessment, adapting it as needed for their classrooms. The degree to which teachers "appropriate" performance assessments for their classrooms is related largely the teacher's degree of involvement in developing and implementing the performance assessment system; the flexibility of the assessment system; and the training they received.
Two findings highlight the problem with judging the quality of the pedagogical changes seen. Teachers are still learning how to use performance assessments in their classes, and so they themselves find it hard to evaluate a relationship between the pedagogical change and students' learning. Furthermore, standards for performance may be unclear, unarticulated, or variable.
The study concludes by recommending further research in these areas:
For more information about the study, or to learn more about the case studies and assessment projects detailed in the study, you can find its entire text on the U.S. Department of Education's Web site. For additional information about performance assessment, the list of related Internet sites that follows might be helpful.
INTERNET LINKS RELATED TO PERFORMANCE ASSESSMENT
Article by Sharon Cromwell
Copyright © 2006 Education World