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Understanding Performance-Based Assessment (And Why It Matters)

Understanding Performance-Based Assessment (And Why It Matters)

October 29, 2018

For several years now, we have been hearing about the problems of standardized testing and an over-reliance on it as the sole measure of success for a program or classroom. A 2014 article in the Washington Post does a great job of summarizing many of these arguments. Among the list are concerns that standardized tests squash creativity, that they become an end within themselves instead of a measure of the learning that was accomplished during the class, and that a focus on standardized testing has made a one-size-fits-all curriculum that doesn’t leave room for individual students’ needs.


These are legitimate concerns, and it is out of this discussion that a performance-based assessment grew more popular. Performance-based assessment is a direct challenge to the multiple choice tests that have become ubiquitous in the standardized testing era.

What is Performance-Based Assessment?

Performance-based assessment, according to the Stanford School Redesign Network, is an assessment technique that evaluates students’ learning outcomes based on a product or response that the student creates rather than measuring performance on an assessment tool provided by the educator.


Performance-based assessment puts both a lot of power and a lot of responsibility into the hands of the student. It asks students to determine what methods would best demonstrate their particular skills and strengths, making them think reflectively about what they have learned rather than simply memorizing and repeating information that someone else deemed important for them.


Performance-based products could come in the form of a presentation, a portfolio, or a collaborative project. They are often assessed using a variety of measure and evaluated against an agreed-upon set of standards used to ensure that the assessment is thorough and fair.

Why Does it Matter?

Understanding performance-based assessment is a crucial element for any curriculum design project that aims to be aligned with current best practices. Many individual classrooms, disciplines, and entire districts are moving to performance-based models for at least some of their assessments.


A key consideration for making the switch to a performance-based assessment model is the fact that evaluation can take longer to conduct. Any classroom or program wanting to adopt a performance-based approach will need to ensure that the resources are put into place from the beginning to ensure success. These resources include the following:

  • Agreed upon standards– Performance-based evaluation works only when everyone involved has agreed upon a set of standards that must be met in order to constitute a successful demonstration of skills learned. Often, these standards are the same as the ones used to create curriculum for the course in the first place, but these standards must be clearly articulated and communicated to all involved in the process—including the students.
  • Evaluator training– This kind of assessment is different from the way that many people have been trained to “grade” student work, so it is crucial that those who will be performing the evaluation are trained in the best practices of performance-based assessment to ensure they are able to give meaningful, fair, and standards-aligned feedback.
  • Time– One key difference between performance-based assessments and standardized tests in that performance-based approaches often require more time, both for the students to produce the work in the first place and for the evaluators to thoroughly assess it. You cannot run a student project through a scantron machine, so there will need to be time built in for meaningful evaluation to take place.

Performance-based measures are a key supplement to (and, in some cases, replacement for) traditional standardized assessments. understanding how this approach works and building in the resources to do it well can have a transformative impact on the classroom, giving students the agency to take control of their own learning and the power to display what they have learned in a meaningful, creative, and engaging way.

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