The Forum on Capitol Hill Series: Assessments for Learning – A Briefing on Performance-Based Assessments.

October 20, 2008

On October 20, a standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 practitioners, policy makers and thought leaders joined the Forum for Education and Democracy to discuss the importance of assessing students based on demonstrations of what they know, understand, and can do.

After an introduction by Forum National Director Sam Chaltain and Policy & Outreach Director Beth Glenn, Convener Linda Darling-Hammond opened the briefing, which was co-sponsored by Senator Russell Feingold (D-WI) and Congressman John Yarmuth (D-KY). She was joined by Eva Baker of the Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing (CRESST), Ann Cook of the NY Performance Standards Consortium, filmmaker and Consortium school graduate Kiri Davis, and Nellie Mae Foundation CEO Nick Donohue, the former superintendent of schools in New Hampshire. A question and answer period followed these speakers.

Linda Darling-Hammond “What we have thought of as fairly rare in this country is quite common in most of the high-achieving countries internationally,” Linda Darling-Hammond began. (See her presentation here.) Beginning with a list of 21st century skills, Darling-Hammond contrasted US tests - which require recall of a simple fact or ask students for a one-sentence explanation - with exams abroad that include designing science experiments, refining computer programs and explaining the reasoning behind solutions for complex problems. "[In many nations,] there’s a teaching and learning system, that operates to provide rich curriculum and strong outcomes,” Darling-Hammond said. “They are what assure that the higher-order skills are actually taught and practiced.”

Eva Baker
Next, Eva Baker (see her presentation here) described how exams could be designed to elicit the demonstrations of such skills while still accounting for quality, fairness and cost. Drawing on her work with performance tasks for the military, she also underscored how demonstrating these skills prepares people for high-level tasks, from recognizing improvised explosive devices to minimizing damage and injury when a ship starts to flood. “It doesn’t matter to me if you make adequate yearly progress if the tests are wrong,” she said. “We’re not teaching kids at all - or rarely - to generalize beyond whatever is on the standards or whatever is on the test.

“Learning requires creating active patterns in the brain,” said Baker. “We’re working with people with functional MRIs as they learn particular things and it’s really different from taking multiple choice tests. It isn’t just our allegation. It turns out to be physiologically different.” Baker went on to describe how teachers scoring demonstrations could be taught to eliminate subjectivity and bias and how technology was making the use of performance-based assessments more cost effective.

Ann Cook, principal of Urban Academy, a NY high school organized around performance assessment, said that student demonstrations of knowledge were not add-ons at schools like hers, but a priority. “It’s an approach that is deep, not broad,” she said. “The Consortium’s performance-based assessments are based on the notion that since learning is complex, assessment should be, too.” (Click here for her presentation.)

The Consortium’s approach has shown impressive results: despite enrolling a disproportionate number of disadvantaged students (when compared to other schools in the city), Consortium schools had lower dropout rates, higher graduation rates, higher college-going rates and higher daily attendance rate than New York City schools.

A graduate of one of those schools, Kiri Davis (see her presentation here), showed her critically acclaimed short film, “A Girl Like Me.” In conceiving the film, Davis drew on several of her high school courses, and used her required internship to create a product that fulfilled the school’s arts performance graduation requirement.

Now a sophomore at Howard University, Davis said being asked to demonstrate and use her knowledge has given her an advantage over students who graduated from traditional programs. “My educational opportunity has been limitless,” said Davis. “To be in a school that looked more at my performance and didn’t make me feel like I was only worth my highest test score, really allowed me to feel so much more capable of so much more. “It just gives you the confidence going into different environments where you feel like you can do it. I’ve been looking at fellow college students in the prerequisite courses, looking at who was able to say what they thought the professor wanted to hear and those able to think about the whole context of whatever issue we were talking about and go more in depth. I think that’s just evidence of the kind of education you had.”

Former state superintendent Nicholas Donohue closed out the program by describing lessons learned from several New England states that are exploring performance-based assessments. (Click here for his presentation.)“This isn’t really a choice,” he said of the shift to demonstration-based testing. “The question is not if you move to performance assessments but how to structure them, and NCLB actually provides opportunities for this. These kinds of assessments are coming and they need state and federal support to accelerate.”

Donohue ended his remarks with a plea to think differently about assessment as a means to closing the achievement gap and giving all students equally high-quality learning opportunities. “It will be good for districts and it will be good for schools, but that is not a reason to do this,” he said. “The reason to move this way is because it’s an obligation to students. We say we’re about equity, especially in term of closing the achievement gap. Well, if we’re serious about that, then instead of organizing our schools around a narrow but important set of basic standards…we need an aligned assessment system that has to have performance assessments. You cannot determine whether people can drive a car by having them fill in an on-demand assessment. “It’s an obligation to give all our young people these 21st Century skills.”

A report by Conveners Linda Darling-Hammond and George Wood, "Assessment for the 21st Century: Using Performance Assessments to Measure Student Learning More Effectively," is available here.

A summary of the briefing is also available.

To view the entire briefing, click here.