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Performance Assessment: An Engaging Alternative to Traditional Test-Taking

July 29, 2020

SRI International
   Emma Pellerin, REL Appalachia

Arlington Public Schools teacher Traci Holland supports her students in completing their performance-based task by asking probing questions

Arlington Public Schools teacher Traci Holland supports her students in completing their performance-based task by asking probing questions.

Assessments are an essential part of the teaching and learning process. After days, weeks, or months of instruction, educators typically administer a quiz, a test, or assign an essay to assess student mastery (insert student complaints/groans here). But what if students were excited to show what they had learned, and viewed assessments as an opportunity to do just that?

Excitement may sound like wishful thinking, but some Virginia science teachers had the chance to see this idea become reality when they administered performance-based assessments (PBA) in the fall of 2019. A PBA asks students to craft their own responses to a problem that is authentic to their experience by constructing an answer, producing a product, or performing an activity.1 Research shows that performance assessments help teachers develop instructional strategies that strengthen students' problem-solving and critical thinking skills.2 Using performance assessments can increase student engagement as well as academic and interpersonal skill development.3 PBAs can be implemented in formal or informal settings, and can serve as formative or interim assessments, as well as high-level summative assessments.4, 5 Examples of PBAs range from biweekly journal entries, to reports, to even dance performances.

With educators from the Prince William and Arlington school divisions, REL Appalachia (REL AP) staff members developed a four-step process, outlined below, to support educators implementing performance assessments:

a four-step process outlining steps to support educators in implementing performance assessments: define purpose & identify standards; select performance assessment; apply the criteria review tool; and engage students & plan to administer

The development process incorporates the Virginia Quality Criteria Review Tool for Performance Assessments (Criteria Tool), which outlines seven quality criteria for a performance assessment, such as considerations for student engagement and ensuring the authenticity of an assessment. Together, REL AP staff members and Virginia science teachers created a participant workbook, Implementing High-Quality Performance Assessments in Science, to support educators administering their first performance assessment.

REL AP staff members coached science teachers from Prince William and Arlington County Public Schools as they administered performance assessments in the 2019/20 school year. We recently sat down with them to debrief their experience and talk about what goes into executing a quality performance assessment in the classroom. They shared which steps went well for them, aspects of developing and implementing a performance assessment that proved challenging, and advice for anyone creating and implementing a performance assessment for the first time.

What went well

  • Using the Criteria Tool. Teachers identified the Criteria Tool as an indispensable resource to understand what constitutes an effective performance assessment and how to develop your own PBA.
  • Collaborating with other teachers. Teachers underscored the importance of working with colleagues when developing their performance assessments. One described her first coaching session with other Virginia science teachers as “mind-blowing” because they offered invaluable feedback on how to improve her grading rubric.
  • Student engagement. When asked about the most exciting part of developing and implementing a performance assessment, one teacher immediately responded, “Watching the kids work! The kids really were excited because they got to have a voice.”
  • Planning backward. “Plan, plan, plan, plan, plan with the end in mind.” Participants declared that backward planning, starting with the learning goal, was the best approach to administering performance assessments because it ensured that teachers met their end goal for student mastery.

What they learned

  • Creating a performance assessment takes time. Teachers allotted a significant amount of time to collaborating with colleagues, evaluating sample assessments, and reviewing the Criteria Tool as they developed their assessments. The actual PBA implementation typically took two to four weeks, with some teachers noting that students wanted to invest even more time in their projects.
  • Give students opportunities to practice working with grading rubrics. Many students were unfamiliar with grading rubrics and needed time to understand how they would be evaluated through the rubric's different standards and categories.

Interested in learning more?

Are you interested in learning more about PBA? View the resources below for more information and check our site regularly for upcoming events and new resources.

Upcoming Webinar Series
Join our webinar series on implementing performance assessments planned for August 4 and 11, 2020. Participants will learn about best practices for developing and administering PBAs in their own classrooms from Virginia science teachers. Look out for the webinar dates before the start of the 2020/21 school year.

Recent REL research

  • This Ask A REL response gives information on improving student learning through administering performance tasks in secondary ELA and social studies classrooms.
  • This Ask A REL response details research and resources related to developing and implementing PBAs in elementary science and mathematics classrooms.
  • The Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning and Equity (SCALE)'s assessment system facilitates the design of informative performance assessments for K-12 students and teachers.
  • The Performance Assessment Resource Bank provides complete performance tasks for educators, as well as relevant research and frameworks for integrating performance assessments into their curriculum.
  • This online course from REL Northeast & Islands (NEI) will cover the fundamentals of assessment literacy, in addition to developing, scoring, and administering performance assessments. It will be released in late 2020.
  • As part of the coaching activities, REL AP staff members and Virginia science teachers developed a workbook, Implementing High-Quality Performance Assessments in Science.

Partner resources



1 McTighe, J. (2014). Designing cornerstone performance tasks to promote meaningful learning and assess what matters most. Jay McTighe & Associates Consulting. resources/McTighe_Handout_2%5B1%5D.pdf; Parsi, A., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2015). Performance assessments: How state policy can advance assessments for 21st century learning. White paper. National Association of State Boards of Education. performance-assessments-how-state-policy-can-advance-assessments-21st-century-learning.pdf

2 Koretz, D., Mitchell, K., Barron, S., & Keith, S. (1996). Final report: The perceived effects of the Maryland school performance assessment program. CRESST/RAND Institute on Education and Training. https://www. Performance_Assessment_Program; Faxon-Mills, S., Hamilton, L. S., Rudnick, M., & Stecher, B. M. (2013). New assessments, better instruction? Designing assessment systems to promote instructional improvement. RAND Corporation.

3 Foote, C. J. (2005). The challenge and potential of high-need urban education. Journal of Negro Education, 74(4), 371–381.

4 Formative assessments enable educators to gather regular feedback about student learning during instruction so that teachers can adjust instruction, as needed. They assess a relatively narrow amount of content. Interim assessments allow teachers to identify strengths and weaknesses in curriculum/instruction. They are implemented less frequently than formative assessments and reflect a broader amount of content. Summative assessments are administered at the end of a unit or grade to evaluate overall curriculum/instructional effectiveness.

5 Parsi, A., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2015). Performance assessments: How state policy can advance assessments for 21st century learning. White paper. National Association of State Boards of Education.; Perie, M., Marion, S., & Gong, B. (2009). Moving toward a comprehensive assessment system: A framework for considering interim assessments. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, 28(3), 5–13.