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New study gives Linked Learning practitioners practical tools for creating performance assessment systems

February 5, 2014

Contact: Barbara McKenna,

Link to the study

STANFORD, CA — As the country shifts to higher standards of learning for students, the ways in which we measure learning are shifting too. Rather than rely on traditional high-stakes one-shot tests, new assessment approaches foster continuous learning, improvement, and subject mastery. A new study offers insights into how teachers can use these practices in their classrooms and schools using examples from several schools implementing the performance assessment approaches effectively.

The study's findings are particularly relevant to teachers and principals in Linked Learning schools but can be used in any school setting. Linked Learning is a statewide initiative in California enabling schools to develop career-themed pathways as a way to better prepare high school students for college, careers, and citizenship. This new guide — Developing a Performance Assessment System From the Ground Up: Lessons Learned From Three Linked Learning Pathways — offers teachers, principals, and central office administrators models, tools, and examples from the Linked Learning field for developing a performance assessment system.

The guide is produced by the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education and funded by the James Irvine Foundation. It draws from a yearlong study of three grade-level teams, located in three different Linked Learning pathways across California.

The study is organized into a collection of short sections that, together, offer a rich picture of what is required to build a performance assessment system in a Linked Learning pathway. 

Section one — What Is Performance Assessment and What Is a Performance Assessment System — explains what performance assessments are and what a performance assessment system looks like.

Section two — Pathway Vignettes — shows the work of teacher teams in three different schools building a system of performance assessment. (See overviews, below.)

Section three — Core Principles —identifies six essential practices for developing a system of performance assessment. Along with each principle, the guide discusses how to get started, establishing conditions to sustain the principles, and deepening the principle in everyday practice. The principles are:

  1. Educate teachers to use performance assessment to improve learning
  2. Ensure coherence throughout the system of performance assessment
  3. Provide instructional leadership at each level of the system
  4. Create enabling workplace conditions
  5. Make work time meaningful
  6. Pay attention to disciplinary content

Section four — How to Get Started — provides four strategic questions to ask when embarking upon this process as well as a rubric for guidance. The questions are:

  1. Why should your pathway engage in building a system of performance assessment?
  2. Where should your pathway begin the work of building a performance assessment system?
  3. What resources do you need to build a performance assessment system? How do you get these resources?
  4. How should your pathway team define success?

Embedded within this digital document are various links to specific examples of performance assessment components and artifacts of practice (e.g., pathway outcomes, performance tasks, and rubrics). The guide provides a set of strategies, tools, and questions for taking action to develop or strengthen a performance assessment system in the context of Linked Learning pathways.



Health and Science Pathway Vignette: Teachers Work Together to Create a Coherent System of Assessment

The Health and Science Pathway* (HSP) is a small public college-preparatory high school located in a large urban school district. Since its inception more than a decade ago, HSP has maintained a particular focus on health and the biosciences and currently serves as a stand-alone pathway (i.e., all students enrolled in the school belong to the pathway). HSP is a veteran Linked Learning pathway that was lauded by one administrator as a “poster child academy” whose “community of practice and . . . particular mission is where we all would like to be 10 years from now.” However, HSP did not jump to its star status overnight, and indeed it “has taken them 10 to 15 years to get there.” The lessons that can be drawn from HSP point to the benefits of a teacher-led process that focuses on building coherence within a system of performance assessment. 

Law Pathway Vignette: Learning and Improving Through a Close and Extended Examination

It’s early May, and seniors enrolled in the Law Pathway at Jackson High School are focused on “passing the bar,” the culminating assessment for their pathway. To showcase their work from the Law Pathway, students will give a 12- to 15-minute presentation to a panel of three adults followed by a 5-minute question-and-answer session. These three-person panels, made up of not only industry professionals—such as attorneys, court personnel, or police officers—but also educators, such as district coaches, teachers, and former teachers, will decide if students pass the bar and receive the related accolades, which include a letter of commendation and the privilege of wearing the Law Pathway sash at graduation.

Performing Arts Pathway Vignette: Enabling Conditions for Building a System of Performance Assessment

The Performing Arts Pathway comprises a small school, the Performing Arts High School (PAHS). PAHS is nested within a larger comprehensive high school that sits inside a large urban school district. It was founded 6 years ago as a pilot school within the district. The governance and operation of this pilot school, which serves roughly 400 kids from a nearby community with a large immigrant population, functions somewhat autonomously within the district, free from some of the district structures that regulate the operation of most schools in the district. For example, PAHS has autonomy over its scheduling. This autonomy gives the PAHS principal leeway to provide teachers with 12 hours per month of professional development time, which, in her words, enabled teachers to “come together and work on curriculum, talk about instructional strategies, do assessment, learn from each other, create with each other.” The school also has autonomy over curriculum and assessment.

*All school names are pseudonyms