Saturday, May 25, 2013

Initial Reflections on Performance-Based Assessments

Since we are trying to prepare students for Smarter Balanced Assessment that will begin in 2014-2015, fourth-graders across our district completed performance assessments over the last week. We used an assessment that Teachers College Reading and Writing Project designed. If you are looking for examples of assessments, their website contains several at various grade levels.

We used one of the fourth-grade performance assessments that challenged students to think about school lunches. The materials include two articles and a video that students watch twice, according to the directions. Students then decided whether they were in favor of being allowed to bring lunches from home or having programs where all students buy lunch. I watched some of our classes take the assessment, I have looked at student work, at I have talked to students and teachers about this assessment and some of the feedback and implications for instruction are:
  • Taking notes from and gaining information from a video is difficult. Even though most of our students have had their fair share of screen time, they watch as passive participants without much debate, conversation or learning going on after sessions of screent time. Several students talked about the video going too fast for them to take notes. Some implications for instruction?
    • We had at least one class watch the video once on the big screen and then individually on computers with the option of pausing. I'll be interested in talking to these students about their experience with the task.
    • Students have to learn how to take notes without feeling the need to write full, perfect sentences. They have to develop an understanding of why we take notes, but for many students who are just mastering the skill of writing in sentences, this is really, really hard.
  • The video is designed as the first task of the assessment and is contains a clear bias toward purchasing/providing school lunches. We have teaching points that address the point of view and bias of the author and we will need to develop some points around the point of view and bias of the video-maker, as well. That being said, some questions around the concept of video as a part of assessment:
    • Should there be a balance of biased clips? At least one of our students got stuck because she was in favor of bringing school lunches but that side of the argument did not exist in the video clip. If that's the case, a long assessment becomes longer...
    • Should the point of view of the makers be highlighted?
    • Should video clips be neutral? Those would be hard to find for many of the topics that lend themselves to making claims.
    • Should students be allowed as much time as they choose to stop and start the clip? With the pressures of on-line testing, districts should be acquiring the resources for this to happen...but are they?
  • Let's keep going with the concept of bias. Students had been working on research-based essays leading up to the performance assessment so we have been developing text sets around specific topics. When the topics are controversial, it is challenging to find level-appropriate collections that support both sides. The TC assessment definitely leaned toward providing school lunches through not only the video, but also the reading selections. Because we want students to use evidence from texts and not just their own thinking and experiences, there are implications for instruction. I'm wondering if we need to:
    • teach students that they should choose the side that has more evidence, regardless of their opinion. My teenage daughter is taught this strategy to prepare for AP exams but at what age are students really developmentally able to argue a stance that they don't support? And what about those of us who are so committed to teaching about purpose in writing workshop? For the assessment, you might need to assume a position with which you don't agree?
    • teach students to be adept at addressing the opposing beliefs. (Some people think... but I think becomes an even more important thinking prompt to teach students).
I'm sure that there will be much more to come as I reflect with the teachers about the unit and the assessment--we will be meeting in June to share struggles, strategies and celebrations. I'd really be interested to hear about other districts' experiences as I'm sure that we are not the only ones trying out these new assessments.

Enjoy the weekend!


  1. I'm so glad to hear your thoughts about this, Melanie. We were part of the SBAC pilot, so our students experienced what the new test may actually look like. The 5th grade ELA test that I observed did include an informational video. Like your students, ours found it difficult to take notes
    while watching. They also found it difficult to go back into the video if there was a question about something they hadn't written down. Other issues they had were the split screens of text and questions. I can't imagine how kids who don't have access to technology will manage. What's most concerning to me is that so many of these concerns are not really related to learning about reading and writing. They're more about the mechanics of actually taking the test. It seems like there must be a better way!

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