One of the ways we understand that children are learning is by what they say to us and what they tell us about what they are learning. Teachers are constantly asking students to demonstrate their learning by showing what they know and can do. This language of know and can do is embedded in the standards movement of the last 20 years. And it can serve as a bridge for us going forward in the next 20 years of assessing student learning.
Ironically the 1990s portfolio movement in school reform took place just before the standards movement of the 2000s. I say ironically because the standardized test was excellent at quizzing children on what everyone should have learned and memorized, but the core reform of the portfolio movement was that students would be in charge of demonstrating their individualized learning. The simple pushback against standardized testing back then was that it was not very helpful at identifying authentic learning for each child. The irony that we have had this conversation before is not lost on us today.
New Ways Of Collecting Evidence of Student Learning
Performance assessment is back and in demand. But it is not ironic from the point of view of collecting better evidence of student learning because performance assessments naturally show more accurately what students know and can do. If there is one thing we have learned through the standardized testing movement it is that testing children produces a bell curve of learning results, which are not very accurate for a wide variety of students. New ways of collecting evidence of student learning are now being called for and performance assessment is at the forefront of these more reliable and valid ways of collecting evidence of student learning.
Math and English are Cumulative
What standardized testing does well is show that math and English are cumulative. That is to say that learning to add and subtract helps produce better work in algebra and trigonometry. Learning to spell correctly and put sentences together helps kids in English perform and write better five-paragraph essays. But if that was all there was to learning then we should have seen every kid attain standards by now. In the 20 years of the standards movement the needle has hardly moved and the results are the same bell curve we always get when we give a standardized test. So math and English are cumulative but there is a deeper part of learning evidence that needs to be uncovered and measured for us to really claim we know what students are learning.
Performance Assessment Measures Deeper Learning
The advantage to performance assessment is that it does a better job of revealing what students know and can do. In math this would look like a diagnostic that some children had learned to add and subtract well and some children had not. Despite how old they are, if they are taking trig, and don’t know how to do some of the basic math, performance assessment would show that and would alert teachers and students to go back to that area in order to strengthen the foundation of their learning in math. Equally insightful in English is that the lack of grammar and spelling would show up as the reason for why comprehension has gone down. If students do not know what words mean they cannot understand what the paragraph is trying to convey. And this is just the start of the deeper learning that we need to get after in schools today.
Deeper Learning is Creative
In fact what we are coming to learn about the brain is that deeper learning is both soft skills and hard skills and the creative way that all of us think. The hard skills are things like cumulative adding and subtracting. The soft skills are the intuition of when to use the hard skills, how to attack a problem in math, and how to set up math problems so that the hard skills can be used. In English the deeper learning is not just how to construct a five-paragraph essay but also how to make the essay reveal your thinking about the topic. These are the more complicated ideas and evidence of student learning that teachers and students have to be supported in during classroom learning. This is the work that we need to do going forward using performance assessments to collect better evidence of student learning.