What is Performance Assessment?

In the narrowest sense, according to ETS, performance assessment is “A test in which the test taker actually demonstrates the skills the test is intended to measure by doing real-world tasks that require those skills, rather than by answering questions asking how to do them.”

Many educators use five criteria from Wiggins and McTighe in Understanding by Design (UbD) when creating and evaluating performance assessments: Real-World Goal, Role, Audience, Standards for Success, and Product/Performance. A productive alternative to coverage and activity-oriented plans, over the last decade UbD has become a widely used strategy of backward design of units and projects.

Similarly, Marc Chun, now at the Hewlett Foundation, wrote a paper on performance assessment in 2010 where he described the features of a quality performance task:

  • Real-world scenario: students assume roles in real-world scenarios.

  • Authentic, complex process: scenarios reflect complex and ambiguity of real-world challenges.

  • Higher-order thinking: requires critical thinking, analytic reasoning, and problem solving.

  • Authentic performance: the ‘product’ reflects what a professional would produce.

  • Transparent evaluation criteria: the learning outcomes drive the creation of the task.

More broadly, performance assessment is part of an approach to teaching and learning that values application over rote memorization.  An ASCD publication says, “In the act of learning, people obtain content knowledge, acquire skills, and develop work habits—and practice the application of all three to ‘real world’ situations.” Performance assessment is the “application of knowledge, skills, and work habits through the performance of tasks that are meaningful and engaging to students.” These tasks, occasionally marking gateways in learning, are “strategically placed in the lesson or unit to enhance learning as the student ‘pulls it all together’.” ASCD says performance tasks “are both an integral part of the learning and an opportunity to assess the quality of student performance.”

Projects. The broadest use of performance assessment is project-based learning. Schools that value Deeper Learning assign projects to students both as a learning experiences and a form of assessment. As noted in August, schools that exhibit Deeper Learning:

  • Engage students in authentic interdisciplinary work that is often community connected.

  • Ask students to explore–and often solve–real problems faced by employers and community members.

  • Ask students to produce and present professional quality work product to community audiences.

  • Value employability and they track work skills as well as academic progress

Schools in the Asia Society, Big Picture, Edvisions, Envisions, and New Tech Network provide best practice examples of schools that, in addition to project-based learning, incorporate work- and community-based learning.
Other Performance Tasks. There are many forms of performance tasks: short and long constructed response, drawings and videos, interview.  Technology enables production of quality products as well as complex engagements and simulations; it expands the number of ways that teachers can observe, share and assess student work.

“Some innovative game-based and adaptive learning programs embed key elements of performance assessment,” said Tim Hudson, Dreambox Learning. “These programs present students with new and unfamiliar situations that require them to engage in critical thinking and strategic problem solving to accomplish challenging and meaningful goals.”

Visual game-based ST Math from MIND Research Institute involves challenging scenarios, requires critical thinking, demands a constructed response (not just a mouse click), and is constructed around learning outcomes.

Problem-based platforms like Mathalicious “ask real questions in open-ended ways that require students to make sense of problems and empower students to develop their own strategies for solving them.” Students learn to support and justify their conclusions; they evaluate the validity of others’ arguments; they model findings in a variety of ways–they use math to understand how the world works.

The Role of Performance Assessment.  At most schools, performance tasks supplement more traditional forms on teaching and learning–they extend and apply learning and provide a form of alternative assessment.

There are a few hundred schools (most are part of Deeper Learning networks) where the instructional program is a sequence of performance tasks. Projects are the heart of the instructional program at Summit Public Schools.  The Summit assessment plan says, “They are the assessments that frame our curriculum and define our courses,merging cognitive skill development with the most important content knowledge that students need to be prepared for college

There are four reasons to use performance assessments:

  1. Personalized Learning. Performance assessment is a critical component of creating high engagement learner-centered environment and show what you know culture. Many open ended forms of performance assessment are at least partially interest-based. Project often give students some control over themes, pacing, and the final product.  Compared to didactic instruction and selected response tests, performance tasks can produce high levels of motivation and engagement.

  1. Formative Assessment. Short performance assessment can be incorporated into units of instruction to check for understanding. Performance tasks can be combined with other forms of assessment to guide progress through units of study.  In schools operated by Michigan’s Educational Achievement Authority, each student is responsible for bringing forward three forms of evidence for each learning target, including a performance assessment.

  1. Competency Education. Longer and more comprehensive performance assessments can serve as a matriculation gateway in a competency-based environment.  For example, end of year projects at Expeditionary Learning schools, called Passages, demonstrate a student’s preparation to advance to the next level.  Senior projects are required for graduation at many high schools and in some states.

  2. Standards-based Education. Performance assessments are often the best way to apply knowledge and skills–particularly those difficult to measure in traditional ways such as critical thinking, collaboration, effective communications, and academic mindset.

Mastery Tracking. As formative and summative assessments, performance tasks and resulting products scored using standards-aligned rubrics can be important role in demonstrating academic growth.  However, creating standards-aligned projects, scoring projects, combining performance assessments with other forms of assessment, and providing useful reports can be very challenging and time consuming because the toolset available to schools remains weak and undeveloped.

Useful performance assessment tools and resources make it easier for teachers to create, support, and assess performance tasks.  Mastery tracking tools capture assessment results in a standards-based gradebook and provide reporting tools for individual students and aggregation and analysis tools for groups of students. Data visualization tools, like MasteryConnect’s mastery tracker (below) provide useful summary level details.  


Badges (and other data visualization strategies) can be used to certify and celebrate achievement. They can also personalize learning by guiding choices on what to learn, how to learn, and how to demonstrate learning. Badge systems are likely to become common matriculation management systems.

Portfolio systems, like eduClipper and Pathbrite, create a running record of artifacts that reflect personal bests. Portfolios are gaining post-secondary importance as an alternative market signaling device that supplements or, with a badging system, replaces traditional degrees and certificates.

Well constructed performance assessments and useful mastery tracking tools can create a high agency learning environments where students take responsibility for their own learning.  Sonny Magana, Marzano Research, said, “When students use technology to chart their progress toward target learning goals, it prompts them to take an active role in understanding the learning target, processing their current level of achievement, and planning action steps.”
Watch for a full report on performance assessment tools, strategies, and resources in February.
MasteryConnect, eduClipper are portfolio companies of Learn Capital where Tom is a partner.  MIND Research and Dreambox are Getting Smart Advocacy Partners 

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment


Total dependence on a single series of summative assessments will lead both learners and teachers to adopt strategic methods to impart the core messages which the examinations will be designed to elicit. We will not have good teaching, nor will we achieve deep learning, and we will not have questioning children capable of critical thought or analysis.

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