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Finding Meaning with Mastery: Why Performance Assessment Systems Matter

Recently, a teacher team from a middle school in Attleboro, MA, a small urban district, was participating in a two-day summer institute on designing high quality, curriculum-embedded performance assessments. The school is a member of the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment (MCIEA), a network of seven school districts that seeks to create a new accountability and assessment system comprised of a multiple measures school quality data dashboard, with teacher-generated performance assessments as the primary means of determining student proficiency. As the team planned its first cycle of performance assessment design, they perused student survey data on their school’s data dashboard.

While students in general scored well on the state’s standardized test and felt welcome and safe in their school, students rated the school low on a number of academic engagement questions: How often do you use ideas you learn in school in your daily life? How hard does your teacher make you think? How excited are you about going to class? As they sought to make sense of this data, they came to an important realization: the focus on preparing students to succeed in the state’s standardized testing system had divorced learning from making meaning of the world in which they lived. The teacher team determined that they would take their first year in MCIEA to design a system of rich, engaging performance assessments as a means of engaging and exciting students through project-based assessments in which they apply their learning in real-world settings and scenarios.

What is a system of assessment? What defines traditional assessment systems?

A system is defined as an assemblage or combination of parts that form a complex or unitary whole. Whereas a single assessment is intended to measure student learning at a given point in time, a system of assessment is the collection of that information over time. The system is composed of the types of evidence collected (teacher observation, student self-reflection, essays, exams, projects, state tests, etc.), the frequency of that assessment, and the way in which that information is analyzed and used (if it is used) for instruction and decision making. Assessment systems exist at every level of education - classroom, school, district, state, national, and international.

Traditional assessment systems generally come in the form of packaged, externally created standardized tests, often developed by for-profit corporations. This assessment system, in part, flows from a fundamental lack of trust in teachers as professionals. It is widely argued that this standardization is required to ensure efficiency, technical quality, and most of all, fairness and comparability. And yet, an almost religious commitment to standardized testing in the last 20 years has not yielded significant improvement in so-called achievement gaps by race, income, language, and disability. Scholar Ibram Kendi argues that this fact is not surprising, given that the tests, borne out of the eugenics movement in the early 1900s, were originally designed to produce these very gaps.

Traditional systems of assessment tend to reflect the problematic assumptions on which they were built, both in their design and the outcomes they produce. At the classroom level, teachers are often asked to create assessment systems for their students in relative isolation from other educators in the building leading to a lack of consistency for students. Teachers in the traditional context often revert to the way in which they were assessed, with a collection of high-stakes quizzes, tests, and essays in which there is often only one way to demonstrate the “correct” answer to receive credit. Low-stakes quizzes and assignments are called “formative,” whether they are used formatively or not. 

Student learning is recorded at a given point and then the whole class moves on, gaps in learning notwithstanding. In this context, assessments are the signal that learning on a particular topic has stopped. They provide the measure of how much of the content the student was able to grasp in the time set forth by the teacher (or school or district). In this system, students are the disempowered receivers of learning. Variation is expected and used to determine a student’s value relative to their peers (grade point average or GPA).

Sal Kahn discusses the problems with traditional assessment models and how mastery can begin to disrupt them.

How do systems of assessment shift in a mastery learning environment?

In competency education systems, students demonstrate mastery by showing proficiency over time, in a variety of contexts. On its own, a single assessment cannot provide sufficient evidence of mastery, as single assessments do not meet the burden of proof of a student having demonstrated proficiency within a particular content area and over a set of competencies or standards. In a mastery learning environment, a dynamic system of assessment is required for students to truly have the opportunity to demonstrate that they’ve met mastery or proficiency. In this system, assessment shifts from a high-stakes, one-shot measure of knowledge to an opportunity for students to demonstrate their learning. In this way, assessment shifts from being a measure used by the teachers on the students, to an opportunity for students to take control of their own learning.

If a student does not demonstrate proficiency in the assessment, the negative consequences associated with the traditional assessment framework are not present; rather, the student will receive additional support and then be given additional opportunities to show mastery. The assessment in this system is a chance for both student and teacher to understand where the student is on their journey of learning. They will learn from the assessment process. The focus on transfer of learning means that performance assessments - assessments that ask students to apply their learning in new, real world ways - are a critical measure of learning for mastery education. Within this system, performance assessments enable students to show what they know and are able to do in many different ways.

A mastery-based, performance assessment system includes multiple components:

  • A shared system of common learning goals and rubrics

  • Teachers participate in ongoing professional development on how to create curriculum-embedded performance tasks as well as collaboratively score and analyze the resulting student work

  • Within professional learning groups, teachers use tools and protocols to determine whether performance tasks are of high quality, including ensuring that within each task students have multiple opportunities to demonstrate competency

  • Strong leadership and policy support ensure a fertile culture for mastery-based performance assessment systems to thrive

  • Robust communication and feedback is built into the performance tasks, so that they are a tool for learning, not just the reporting of learning. These are assessments for learning, not merely assessments of learning.

  • Students engage in a series of authentic opportunities to demonstrate their learning

  • Student work produced from these assessments is scored collaboratively in order to build inter-rater reliability (teachers score the same student work in similar ways) and is used to make informed judgments about student proficiency and academic learning within an entire school, school district, and/or state

  • Performance assessments as a foundation ultimately influence multiple aspects of a school including curriculum, instruction, grading, graduation requirements, transcripts, and scheduling

Mastery Week Article Images

Chelsea Opportunity Academy (Chelsea, MA) educators map the competencies in their system of assessment to ensure that students have multiple opportunities both to be assessed on each competency multiple times both in their individual classrooms (left) and across classes (right).

Competency education demands a system of assessment in which a series of rich performance tasks provide students with the opportunity to demonstrate that they’ve mastered a given competency such that the skill or understanding can be applied to new contexts. This is not the sort of learning that can be demonstrated on a standardized test. To build these systems within a classroom, educators should have a clear understanding of their learning goals (competencies, outcomes, targets, etc) and a strong understanding that students must be given multiple opportunities to demonstrate their learning in authentic ways. In order to build systems beyond the walls of a single classroom, educators must be given the space to develop these systems in collaboration with each other. Continual collaboration and refinement are part of the process. In these systems, assessments are aligned to competencies, embedded in curriculum, and help students drive their own learning.

Why does mastery assessment matter?

The shift to mastery-based learning is complex, involving changes to many intertwined systems (learning goals, curriculum, instruction, assessment, etc). At the core of systems change is a deep-rooted understanding of why the change is taking place. Mastery assessment can provide a space to undo some of the harm caused by traditional assessment systems. At the classroom level, it provides teachers with the tools to build a culture of assessment that puts students in the driver’s seat of their own learning. Beyond the classroom, teachers engaged in building larger systems of mastery assessment are entrusted with the task of creating systems that better serve every learner. In traditional assessment systems, teachers and students are disempowered. Marginalized students and the teachers who work with them often shoulder an outsized share of the negative externalities of our current assessment frameworks. With this shift, assessment moves from being a stressful, high stakes experience to an opportunity for students to demonstrate their learning and a space where the professionalism of educators is valued all while providing a fuller and more meaningful picture of student proficiency.

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