Performance-based Assessments: Difficult to Measure — But Decisive

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Editor’s Note: Eagle Rock’s connection to the Performance Assessment work in New Mexico is working with the New Mexico Center for School Leadership in helping both ACE and Health Leadership high schools understand assessment practices and the processes and structures that allow for high-quality performance assessments to take place. Today’s post, authored by Larry Myatt of Educational Resources Consortium, dives deep into what’s happening with this issue in New Mexico.

Performance-based Assessments: Difficult to Measure — But Decisive

By Larry Myatt, Co-founder – Education Resources Consortium

There is no standardized test for music performance, but that doesn’t prevent listeners from knowing a quality performance when they hear one. Music performance is frequently used as an analogy among a group of New Mexico educators who are seeking new ways to assess academic learning.

Their work is part of a growing national movement called “performance-based assessment,” which is centered on the idea that student learning can be systematically measured on the basis of what students can do — not what they can demonstrate on a standardized written test.

The educators from the New Mexico Performance Assessment Network (PAN) say their work is important because so many reforms – teacher evaluations and school grades, for example – rely heavily on standardized tests to measure what students learn.

What it looks like

Principal Gabriella Duran Blakey offered an example of how performance-based assessment will look at Health Leadership High School in Albuquerque, which has a focus on health professions. She said students might do a unit of study on “food deserts,” or areas where healthy, affordable food is difficult to obtain.

Based on demographic and other research, students might decide an area needs a new grocery store, and then they would have to explain and justify where they would situate that store, how they would market it and then develop a business plan for its successful operation. They would simulate its construction plan, decide which products to stock and what to charge. Students would then defend their work before a panel of professionals, which might include store owners, nutritionists and doctors who work with diabetes patients. The panel would assess the students, deciding the extent to which each student demonstrated mastery of particular skill levels and curriculum standards.

Their aim is to build a better test. Tori Stephens-Shauger, principal of ACE Leadership High School and founder and facilitator of the PAN, says that the network is not starting from scratch. Its efforts are based in part on the work of 28 schools called the New York Performance Standards Consortium. These schools only take one (English Language Arts) of New York’s many Regents standardized tests for graduation and have been assessing students based on performance since 1997. Several dozen schools await membership in the consortium, which cites lower dropout rates and higher rates of college acceptance than the overall rates for New York City.

Stephens-Shauger adds, “The benefit from having a network that is focused on doing high-quality performance assessment is that we can build capacity within our state to do this kind of evaluation of student learning. The PAN is made up of schools with different missions, methods of teaching and basis for curriculum, but sharing a core belief that students should be assessed in the way that they learn best.

“Though there are expectations for network schools around some specific commitments — such as the practice of performance assessment and the professional development required to do it well — standardizing the schools is not one of them.  Schools like Cottonwood Classical Preparatory School use a rhetoric-based program called Paideia to prepare their high school students for college. The Native American Community Academy emphasizes the importance of the community, including native leaders, to prepare middle and high school students for college.

Media Arts Collaborative Charter School uses its emphases on media arts as a tool to not only build skills within the content areas but also prepare middle and high school students for careers in the media arts industry. Mountain Mahogany Community School is an elementary school that focuses on emotional intelligence and infusing learning with movement, art and the natural world.

“This richness in expertise and perspective enhances the PAN’s opportunity to think critically about what learning looks like through performance assessment at all grade levels and in different contexts.”

Health Leadership’s principal Duran Blakey said, “It’s more important when kids go to college or when they go into the workforce, that they have skills that go beyond conventional classroom learning.

As an example, she says, the “test” at the end of a unit of study might be a group presentation of a research project and model that the students created. Duran Blakey is part of the PAN’s piloting of performance-based assessment in its schools this year. Students will still be required to take New Mexico’s standardized tests and their schools will still be evaluated in conventional ways by state authorities. But the PAN schools — including Health Leadership and ACE Leadership charters — also will experiment with other ways to assess learning.

Tony Monfiletto, who was involved in founding ACE and Health Leadership High Schools, said he hopes the findings can eventually be incorporated into New Mexico’s current education initiatives.

“The long-term idea is that performance assessment [would] be seen as an evaluation process of equal if not greater value than the standardized tests, so that schools can choose to use performance assessment as a valid indicator of their quality” he said.

The New Mexico Public Education Department (PED) expressed cautious support for the group’s efforts. “We have had preliminary exposure to their work and it is intriguing, but questions concerning validity are currently unanswered in the state,” PED spokesman Larry Behrens said in an email. “After a fair amount of research and stakeholder input, we will always be open to discussing valid and reliable measures and possibly adding them into our reforms.”

The PAN schools, in partnership with University of New Mexico (UNM) professor Vanessa Svihla, will study whether their assessments hold up under scrutiny. Svihla has a grant to study performance-based assessment at Health Leadership and other charter schools. Her aim is to help the schools develop consistent measures and to study whether and how they are valid and reliable. In other words, she is studying whether the assessments are viable in determining whether students learned what they were supposed to and whether the scoring system is clear enough that a variety of judges would come to similar conclusions about the same performance.

Svihla used the music analogy to explain assessment reliability. “If eight people look at a musical performance and all agree that it was a really great performance, that’s how we often evaluate music,” she said.

Duran Blakey said the schools will work with UNM to develop guidelines for teachers about what makes a good assessment.

“You can’t just have it be that any teacher can make any assessment and that counts,” she said. Svihla said she plans to carefully study and document a few schools that share common leadership, cultures, and philosophies.

“We’re taking a very careful look at a few schools,” she said. “These are schools that have experimented with doing this kind of assessment previously. They’re not taking this on as a completely new practice.”

Both Health Leadership and ACE Leadership high schools are founded largely on partnerships with businesses seeking an educated workforce in particular areas such as health, architecture and construction. Several employers said they are excited about the effort because it will assess the skills they need from workers in ways a standardized test cannot.

Maria Guy, vice president of J.B. Henderson Construction, said test scores don’t show her important skills like teamwork and communication. “It’s not necessarily that we want to eliminate any of the current things, but a student has more to offer than just a test score,” Guy said. “From an employer’s perspective, I have different needs from my employees. From some of them I need someone who can really work with a team — someone who’s a problem solver, a good communicator and just has that ability to bring a lot of folks together on an issue. How could a standardized test ever measure anything like that?”

Guy added that there are multiple ways to measure a student’s skills and knowledge, and standardized tests are just the easiest way. “That would be to say the only way to measure something is to weigh it. But what about the length, the volume?” she said. “We’ve chosen the way that is the easiest for us.”

Guy also acknowledged that measuring learning through performance is difficult, calling it “messy,” but said she believes it is worthwhile. “I think it’s worth wrestling with, and I recognize that it’s hard,” she said.

Comments (3)

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