In a High-Stakes Testing Environment, Performance-Based Assessment Gains Respect

In a High-Stakes Testing Environment, Performance-Based Assessment Gains Respect

Essential schools around New York took alarm when their state commissioner of education recently required all high school students to pass before graduation five rigorous, curriculum-specific exams previously given only for the “Regents diploma.” Such one-time, high-stakes tests do an injustice, Essential school leaders argued, to schools valuing depth of learning over coverage of material–especially when students were already completing a demanding series of juried graduation portfolios. Out of the controversy grew the New York Performance Standards Consortium–40 public high schools serving diverse students in diverse communities and showing excellent rates of attendance, graduation, and college acceptance under a performance-based assessment system. Here its members describe the components of that system, and why it (along with other like-minded schools) deserves extension of its waiver from the Regents requirement.

What Is a Performance-Based System?

Nine components provide evidence that Consortium schools utilize a system of assessment, rather than a single instrument or test. Embedded in the way the school is organized, that system underpins the culture of the school and makes clear to the public what the school values. Together its checks and balances allow schools to make informed and multi-dimensional decisions with respect to students. The components:

  • Alignment of curriculum with state standards
  • Cumulative documentation
  • Consortium-wide rubrics for competent, good, and outstanding work
  • An instructional model based on active learning
  • Multiple means to express and exhibit learning
  • Mechanisms for corrective action
  • Professional development as part of the school culture
  • External review of student work
  • External review of the assessment system.

How the Consortium Assesses Its Students

Consortium schools require students to engage in time-intensive, in-depth research projects and papers. The rigorous performance tasks involved, they assert, require students to “think like historians, solve problems like mathematicians, conduct experiments the way scientists do, critically interpret works of literature, and speak and write clearly and expressively.” In the tradition of the doctoral defense, students must orally present and defend completed work to external assessors.

“Assessment drives curriculum and instruction,” the Consortium cautions, and whatever its form, preparing students for it takes time. Readying students for even one Regents exam, in English Language Arts, requires 33 hours per term (three 44-minute periods a week for 15 weeks), the Consortium figures–leaving insufficient time for the 55 hours per term that Consortium schools currently spend with students preparing portfolio projects involving reading, writing, analysis, and presentation skills. “What would you drop to provide the extra time?” Consortium members ask. “Would you require Regents schools to administer performance assessments?”

For more on The New York Performance Standards Consortium, contact Ann Cook at Urban Academy, 317 East 67th Street, New York, NY 10021.