Schools look to performance based assessments to measure learning

The Milford schools are preparing to develop new performance based assessments, which would require students to give presentations to teachers and which would emphasize critical thinking, problem solving, analyzing data and posing critical questions.

Brian Scott, Milford’s superviser of the Social Studies and World Language curriculum, arranged for a professional development collaborative between the Milford, Stratford and Amity school districts to develop and share performance based assessments. He discussed those plans with the school board this month.

School Board Chairman Susan Glennon said school officials have been discussing performance based assessments as a result of district goals the board passed last year, one of which refers to improving students’ ability to solve problems and take a critical stance based on evidence and research.

This summer, led by the Milford public school system, 15 teachers from Milford, Stratford and Amity (which includes Orange, Woodbridge and Bethany), will be trained in innovative labs on how to measure the ability of students to solve complex problems.

The labs will provide an opportunity for teachers to create student based assessments and are expected to give the school systems new, important data crucial to measuring critical thinking and problem solving, officials said.

The workshops will take place over six days, with the first session on June 12, and with three additional sessions in August. The remaining sessions will be in February and April .

Ultimately, school officials hope that by the time students graduate high school they will be able to make presentations to teachers with expertise in particular areas on wide-ranging topics. The subjects might include how the historical movement of populism impacts political elections in modern times, to what it would take to increase agriculture in third world countries with water shortages.

Scott explained to the school board during the March 13 meeting in the Parson’s Complex why the new performance based assessments are so important. He stressed the new approach will require students to think critically, encouraging them to view academic subjects with new and broadened perspectives.

He also emphasized that with performance based assessments it is not only about getting the right answer.

“What matters is their ability to back up their arguments with research and generate new solutions,” Scott said. “They measure important things that standardized tests do not measure.”

Scott stressed that performance based assessments measure deep, high level thinking.

Jeffrey Burt, assistant superintendent of schools, also favors this concept because he believes it provides alternatives that are crucial to critical thinking, rather than just stressing how to do well on standardized tests.

“Performance based assessments are not tests,” Scott said. “They allow students to approach problems in new, complex ways.”

Scott also emphasized that this does not replace important aspects of the education system.

“We are not saying that students should not learn content,” he said. “Instead there should be more educational alternatives in which the minds of students can be cultivated. “

“This approach develops students’ ability to think rather than their ability to just find an answer,” Scott said.  

Performance based assessments are being used far beyond Milford, and are part of a growing national trend.

As was written in an editorial in Education Week by Larry Ferlazzo, a social studies teacher at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, Calif., performance based assessments are different from other types of assessments.

“Performance assessment is a process in which students apply knowledge, understanding and skills in authentic contexts to create or construct an answer to a problem and receive feedback from teachers, peers, and themselves about that performance to improve subsequent performance, “ Ferlazzo wrote.

“Performance assessments are a valuable and necessary addition to every classroom,”  Ferlazzo wrote, adding that they provide “the teachers and students the opportunity to authentically engage in the  curriculum and grow stronger in conceptually understanding the content.”