ERIC Identifier: ED327612
Publication Date: 1990-06-00
Author: Ascher, Carol
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education New York NY.
Can Performance-Based Assessments Improve Urban Schooling?
ERIC Digest Number 56.
Nationally, the use of standardized short-answer and multiple-choice
tests has grown dramatically in recent years. While both the form and content
of these tests have increasingly driven curriculum, students' scores have
also become a major influence on promotion and placement decisions, on
the professional advancement of teachers, and even on school funding (Bracey,
1989). In urban schools serving low-income, linguistic and cultural minority
students, the reliance on these tests has been especially heavy--narrowing
curriculum and exacerbating tracking and failure rates (FairTest &
In an effort to enrich curriculum to the fullest extent possible, and
to evaluate students more fairly, 28 states have begun to use essays to
assess writing, and there is a move to replace standardized tests with
"performance-based assessments" in some subjects. Such assessments, it
is claimed, stress the higher order skills that schools should be teaching,
make good diagnostic instruments, and are much better at eliciting the
potential of disadvantaged students. However, the urgency to initiate an
alternative to short-answer and multiple-choice tests may be leading educators
to underestimate some of the problems of performance-based assessments,
particularly when used in high-stakes situations.
BENEFITS OF PERFORMANCE-BASED ASSESSMENT
The best way to discover how students think, or to diagnose where they
are having difficulties in learning--which, aside from accountability and
placement, is the main reason for testing--is to give them as much range
as possible to express themselves fully (Archbald & Newmann, 1988),
and to assess their learning in its natural context, as they make active
use of the skill (Gardner, in press).
While traditional standardized tests assume that a multiple choice question
about possible grammatical solutions to a sentence can indicate a student's
writing skills, a performance-based assessment simply samples the student's
writing itself. While traditional tests are scored on the basis of "objective"
notions of right and wrong answers, performance-based assessments entail
clear human judgments, and can even include dialogues that enable the students
tested to ask for clarification and to explain their answers (Wiggins,
1989). Whereas most standardized tests measure only discrete linguistic
and number skills, assessments in context can assess a far wider range
of competencies (Gardner, in press). Like life, where most of the important
problems faced are open-ended and complex, performance-based assessments
require each student to demonstrate mastery in a personal and more integrated
way (Archbald & Newmann, 1988). Finally, in contrast to standardized
tests, which have "predictive validity," assessments in context have "ecological
validity"--that is, students perform as they will have to in life.
TYPES OF PERFORMANCE-BASED ASSESSMENTS
Several variations on performance-based assessment have been studied
by researchers, experimented with by private testing companies, and instituted
by public school systems.
Station Activities. Students proceed through a series of discrete tasks,
either individually or in teams, in a given amount of time, much as in
a science laboratory. They might be asked to measure electrical currents,
sort seeds, compare the absorbency of paper products, or infer the characteristics
of objects sealed in boxes. The questions asked are open-ended to elicit
students' thinking strategies.
Domain Projects. Students conduct a rich set of exercises designed to
explore an idea, concept, or practice central to a particular academic
or artistic domain. For example, students are asked to test which paper
towels are best as judged by a variety of criteria. They must solve a wide
range of science and math problems to set up the criteria and make their
judgments (Raizen & Kaser, 1989).
Portfolios. An extension of domain projects, portfolios consist of several
projects completed in a sequence to show students' progress with a subject.
Portfolios can include initial plans, drafts, self-evaluations, feedback
from peers and teachers, plans for subsequent projects, etc.
Videotaping. Although this technology is reliable and inexpensive, its
use is still relatively experimental as an assessment technique. However,
one project used videotaped interviews to assess the mathematics understanding
of primary school students (Resnick & Resnick, 1989).
WIDE USE OF PERFORMANCE-BASED ASSESSMENTS
The most obvious difficulties with using performance-based assessments
on a large scale stem from the reliability and cost of scoring. Supporters
of this new assessment method generally point to the fact that performance-based
assessments are already used widely in art and athletics, where, for example,
pooled ratings are created on artists' portfolios or athletes' Olympic
dives. Moreover, portfolios have been used in England and Wales, where
teachers and external examiners are trained to score them with a high degree
of agreement (Goldstein & Wolf, in press). In 1988 the National Assessment
of Educational Progress (NAEP) processed some 18,000 writing assignments
as part of its battery of tests (NAEP, 1988), and its scoring of these
assignments suggests that reliable, publicly believable, quantitative measures
can be derived from judgments of these assignments (Resnick & Resnick,
On the other hand, such assessments are expensive to score compared
to machine-scorable tests. Most of the current performance-based assessments
are being scored by groups of teachers. Needless to say, they cannot compete
with the 10,000 mechanically scored tests per hour that the Educational
Testing Service now achieves (Frederiksen, 1984). Still, there is no reason
to test as often, or as many students, as is currently done. Sampling methods
are now sophisticated enough that states could easily attain quite accurate
information on their schools' effectiveness through assessing only a portion
of their students (Resnick & Resnick, 1989).
Although it has been said that performance-based assessments can "protect
students from teacher bias" (FairTest & NYPIRC, 1990), the problems
of bias that have always plagued standardized testing remain unsolved in
the new state-wide assessment programs. In fact, there are indications
that, without significant changes in teaching, essays and other open-ended
assessments may result in decreased scores for low-income whites and minorities
Finally, although states have mandated performance-based tests in order
to enrich teaching and learning, the very pressure exerted by mandated
testing programs is likely to work against these state goals. Although
the Irish essay exams are often used as beacons for this country's path,
the Irish experience contains examples of rote preparation of students
with essays that can be shifted slightly, depending on the topic called
for (Madaus, 1990, personal communication). In the United States, performance-based
assessments have already opened out the ways in which subjects like English
or mathematics are taught in some school districts; however, it is also
already clear that instruction can be (and sometimes is being) geared quite
narrowly to the format, or even the specific questions, on the assessments
The hope remains that, despite some obstacles, performance-based assessments
will support a richer, more open ended curriculum and more accurately assess
the skills of low-income minority students whose gifts and needs are diverse.
However, as long as performance-based assessments are used as part of high
stakes testing situations, pressure to generate good and improving test
scores means that there is no sure safeguard against a new trivialization
Archbald, D.A., & Newmann, F.M. (1988). Beyond standardized testing:
Assessing authentic academic achievement in the secondary school. Reston,
VA: National Association of Secondary School Principals.
Bracey, G.W. (1989, April). Standardized tests: Their nature, their
problems, their replacements. Prepared for the Association of Colorado
Educational Evaluators. Englewood, CO: Cherry Creek Schools.
DePalma, A. (1990, November 1). Revisions adopted in college entrance
exams. The New York Times, A1, A24.
FairTest, & NYPIRC. (1990). Standardized tests and our children:
A guide to testing reform in New York. Cambridge and New York: National
Center for Fair and Open Testing and New York Public Interest Research
Frederiksen, N. (1984, March). The real test bias: influences of testing
on teaching and learning. American Psychologist, 3 (3), 193-202.
Gardner, H. (in press). Assessment in context: The alternative to standardized
testing. In B. Gifford & M.C. O'Conner (Eds.), Future assessments:
Changing views of aptitude, achievement, and instruction. Boston: Kluwer
Goldstein, H., & Wolf, A. (In press). Recent trends in assessment:
England and Wales. In L.C. Wing & B.R. Gifford (Eds.), Trends in educational
testing and assessments. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
Madaus, G. (1988). Testing and the curriculum. In L.N. Tanner, Cultural
issues in curriculum. 87th Yearbook, Part I, National Society for the Study
of Education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 83-121.
National Assessment of Educational Progress. (1988). Writing report
card. Princeton, NJ: Author.
Raizen, S.A., & Kaser, J.S. (1989, May). Assessing science learning
in elementary school: Why, what, and how? Phi Delta Kappan, 70 (9), 718-722.
Resnick, L.B. & Resnick, D.P. (1989). Assessing the thinking curriculum:
New tolls for educational reform. Prepared for the National Commission
on Testing and Public Policy. Unpublished manuscript. Learning Research
and Development Center, University of Pittsburgh, & Department of History,
Carnegie-Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA.
Wiggins, G. (1989, May). A true test: Toward more authentic and equitable
assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 70 (9), 703-713.
Wolf, D.P. (1987, December/1988, January). Opening up assessment. Educational
Leadership, 45 (4), 24-29.
The comprehensive monograph on which this digest is based is "School
Progams for African American Male Students," by Carol Ascher. In addition
to providing an expanded discussion of the issues capsulized here, it includes
descriptions of 17 programs around the country, and a comprehensive bibliography.