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A Pivot to Performance Assessments

January 15, 2021

SRI International
   Laura Kassner, REL Appalachia
   Kori Hamilton Biagas, REL Appalachia
   Emma Pellerin, REL Appalachia

In the midst of a pandemic, educators are striving to creatively and effectively motivate and engage students in meaningful learning opportunities in a variety of environments: in-person school with masks and social distancing, fully virtual settings with synchronous and/or asynchronous components, and hybrid blends of the two. At the same time, educators still need critical formal and informal assessment data about student learning and achievement to ensure instruction meets students' needs. To support educators statewide, the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) is providing waivers and emergency guidance to reduce the need for in-person testing and allow multiple pathways for students to demonstrate learning. The shifts in policy and instruction resulting from the necessity of the moment present a perfect opportunity to expand approaches to assessment by rethinking how educators evaluate what students know and can do. Enter: performance assessments.

Adaptive assessment model

High-quality performance assessments challenge students to apply complex knowledge and demonstrate skills to construct an answer, produce a product, or perform an activity that can be both fun and rigorous. 1 “Performance assessment” refers to the entire assessment, which might include several student performance tasks and the instructions, rubric, and materials that teachers use to support students and measure their skills. Performance assessments provide opportunities for both educators and students to be innovative, creative, and adaptable in ways that lead to the development of what Virginia promotes as the “5 Cs”: critical thinking, creativity, communication, collaboration, and citizenship. These assessments can be adapted to a variety of content areas, students' interests and passions, and formats, from essays and reports to demonstrations and portfolios. The adaptability of performance assessments is particularly relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic as many teachers are looking for flexible and engaging assessment options.

Performance assessment pilot project

Arlington Public Schools teacher Traci Holland-Shuford helps student with performance assessment task.

A group of teachers standing in a room discussing example performances assessments that are posted on the wall.

VDOE embarked on efforts to integrate performance assessments into teaching and learning nearly two years ago in order to promote alternatives to traditional standardized assessments, such as multiple-choice tests, in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and the humanities. The Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Appalachia partnered with two Virginia public school divisions to support the implementation of performance assessments in science in grades 4–8. The goal of the project was to co-create accessible resources with our partners in the field and support the implementation of high-quality performance assessments through on-going coaching relationships. REL Appalachia staff documented input from teachers about their experiences using performance assessments and, in partnership with science teachers and district leaders, assembled an array of resources to help educators develop and implement high-quality performance assessments detailed below.

Supports for high-quality performance assessment implementation

  • VDOE published the Virginia Quality Criteria Review Tool for Performance Assessments (Criteria Tool) in 2018 as an expectation-setting document for K–12 teachers across the Commonwealth. The tool details a set of criteria for performance assessments that measure the application of content knowledge and skills, such as intended learning outcomes, authenticity, and accessibility. The criteria are designed to support comparability in rigor and quality across the state. REL Appalachia staff, in collaboration with Virginia educators, built on the VDOE Criteria Tool to develop a comprehensive workbook outlining a four-step process to guide the implementation of performance assessments. Virginia science teachers piloted the workbook in fall 2019, while REL Appalachia staff observed their classrooms and provided ongoing support throughout implementation. REL Appalachia staff then revised the workbook to reflect key insights and lessons learned during the pilot phase that can support implementation for teachers who are new to performance assessments or those who are well-versed in the process. The final version is now available on the REL Appalachia website.

    Teacher Traci Holland supports her students in completing their performance-based task by asking probing questions

    Teacher Traci Holland supports her students in completing their performance-based task by asking probing questions.

  • In August 2020 REL Appalachia staff partnered with a subset of pilot teachers in the project's culminating event, a two-part webinar training series entitled Implementing High-Quality Performance Assessments in Science, focused on selecting, enhancing, and implementing performance assessments in science. Two Virginia science educators served as facilitators in both webinars, where they described their experiences developing and using performance assessments in their own classrooms. They offered suggestions on best practices related to assessment implementation and how to resolve persistent challenges, including how to differentiate assessments based on students' needs. Recordings, transcripts, and slide decks for both webinars and earlier training workshops are available on the REL Appalachia Events page under the “Implementing High-Quality Performance Assessment in Science” dropdown menu, or through the links below. REL Appalachia thanks our partners in Prince William County and Arlington Public Schools for their dynamic partnership in this project, which contributed to important learnings about implementation of performance assessments.

Resources for ongoing learning

To learn more about performance assessments, review the resources below and check our site regularly for upcoming events and new resources.

Trainings and course materials from the REL program

REL Appalachia partner organizations

  • The Virginia Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (VASCD) website includes a series of briefs entitled “Profile of a Virginia Classroom: Deeper Supports, Deeper Learning.” Several of these briefs articulate reasons for embracing performance assessment—integrating authenticity, creativity, and engagement into student learning and assessment—which could convince reluctant colleagues to give the method a try.
  • The Virginia Department of Education's Performance Assessments web page offers access to helpful professional development resources and information about how the state has implemented performance assessments.



1 J. McTighe (2014), Designing cornerstone performance tasks to promote meaningful learning and assess what matters most. Jay McTighe & Associates Consulting. McTighe_Handout_2%5B1%5D.pdf