Little Boxes All The Same

It’s time to stop trying to fit performance assessment into the large-scale assessment box

When I think of the repeated attempts over the past twenty-five years to integrate performance assessment into large-scale K-12 assessment two images come to mind.  The first image is Pete Seeger singing Little Boxes.

Little boxes on the hillside
Little boxes made of ticky tacky
Little boxes, little boxes
Little boxes all the same

The second image is the oft-quoted tenet, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.  

Why those two images?  Because every attempt I have witnessed to expand state assessment to include a performance assessment component has gone something like this:

In short, the project begins with high expectations; as large-scale constraints are considered and applied, the performance assessment becomes smaller in scope and much less appealing; until ultimately, the notion of an actual performance assessment is abandoned in favor of sticking a “performance task” label on a gussied up passage-based writing task or stimulus-based testlet.

There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same

It’s Time to Acknowledge the Obvious

At the most fundamental level, there are obvious differences between performance assessment and large-scale assessment.

  • Performance assessment is designed to allow an individual student (or a small well-defined group of students) demonstrate how well they can apply their knowledge, skills, and abilities to an authentic problem, and requires extended periods of time for planning, implementation, evaluation, revision/adjustment, and final preparation and presentation.
  • Large-scale assessment is designed to enable a state (or other institution) to capture information about the proficiency of large groups of students quickly and as cost-effectively as possible.

Performance assessment is direct measurement. Large-scale assessment, despite all of the well-placed focus on standards, alignment, and construct representation, has always been and always will be indirect measurement (in the classical use of those terms)

Performance assessment, like formative assessment, is a process.  Large-scale assessment, at least in its current instantiation, is an event defined by an instrument.

Performance assessment measures Webb’s Depth of Knowledge Level 4. Large-scale assessment, at best, measures up to Depth of Knowledge Level 3.

Performance assessment can be designed to measure a wide range of 21st century skills. Large-scale assessment may include a performance task designed to measure a limited number of 21st century skills.

Performance Assessment Belongs to Schools and Districts

Acknowledging and accepting these differences between performance assessment and large-scale assessment, it should be equally obvious that performance assessment falls within the purview of schools and districts.  

Although much has been written about Curriculum-embedded Performance Assessments (CEPA) as a type of performance assessment and about performance assessment as a type of Curriculum-embedded Assessment (CEA), there still appears to be a belief that performance assessment can function as an external assessment outside of the curriculum (i.e., a state-administered performance assessment).  If we wish to make real progress on performance assessment, we should dispel that notion.  

Performance assessment must be embedded within the curriculum in the sense that curriculum and instruction in virtually all content areas should be designed to build students’ ability to extend their thinking and demonstrate how well they can apply the knowledge, skills, and abilities they have developed over time.  After all, isn’t that the point?

At a minimum, schools and individual teachers will consider performance assessment in such a way that curriculum, instruction, and related assessment activities will be designed so that students’ proficiency in applying their knowledge, skills, and abilities to authentic problems increases within a particular subject area over the course of a school year.  Ideally, a school and district will have a coherent, interdisciplinary plan that builds students’ skills over time leading toward the demonstration of those knowledge, skills, and abilities in a culminating performance assessment: annual focused performance tasks in middle school building toward a comprehensive research project in the eighth grade; instruction and assessment in high school building toward a graduation exhibition; coursework and research in graduate school building toward a dissertation. 

What’s Left for the State?

The state can support performance assessment by doing what a state does and that begins with funding, providing sufficient funding and distributing that funding equitably to ensure that every student is able to receive an adequate education.

The state can also support professional learning and the development of resources, including curricular, instructional, and assessment resources to support performance assessment. 

Most importantly, the state must do whatever it can to stay out of the way.  Admittedly, that’s something that is quite difficult for an 800-pound gorilla, but it is not impossible.

What’s Left for Large-scale Assessment?

It would be easy to wrap up this post quickly by saying that, like the state, the only thing left for large-scale assessment with regard to performance assessment is to stay out of the way.  True, that is a big part of the answer, but there is a little bit more.

First, as stated in the subtitle of this post, it’s time to stop trying to force performance assessment to fit into large-scale assessment’s pretty little boxes, and to stop calling the things that do fit into those boxes, performance assessment.

A close second is that it’s time to stop trying to expand large-scale assessment to the point where it can encompass performance assessment.  It can’t.  Large-scale assessment can, and should, continue to include well-designed performance tasks, but that is different from it being performance assessment.

Third, we must do a much better job of communicating the purpose of large-scale assessment which should also make it clear that performance assessment and large-scale assessment each serve a purpose, are not diametrically opposed, and can, and should, coexist.

Fourth, start designing large-scale tests and using large-scale assessment in ways that ensure that the statement above is true.

Fifth, and finally, when the third and fourth steps have been accomplished it will be possible to begin to think seriously about large-scale assessment as a process that involves more than a test (or set of tests).  As we rethink large-scale assessment and accountability from the perspective of program evaluation, we will be able to sharpen (or blur, I’m not sure which we need to do) the lines between large-scale tests, dashboards, indicators, and other data systematically collected from students, schools, and districts.

Accomplishing all of the above might be a daunting prospect, but will be much easier and fruitful than continuing to try to build a large-scale performance assessment.  Trust me, I’m a doctor. 

Image credits
Header image by Magic Creative from Pixabay

GIF images
Castle in the clouds, Image by Sarah Richter from Pixabay 
Victorian house, Image by Robert Jones from Pixabay 
Smaller house, Image by Don White from Pixabay  
Abandoned mobile home,  Image by Joshua Woroniecki from Pixabay 
Garden shed and statue, Image by Anja🤗#helpinghands #solidarity#stays healthy🙏 from Pixabay  

Published by Charlie DePascale

Charlie DePascale is an educational consultant specializing in the area of large-scale educational assessment. When absolutely necessary, he is a psychometrician. The ideas expressed in these posts are his (at least at the time they were written), and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations with which he is affiliated personally or professionally..

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