"The Case of the Hungry Hound," a student project for the science and math Performance-Based Assessments at Bate Middle School. (Charlie Hall/YouTube)
“The Case of the Hungry Hound,” a student project for the science and math Performance-Based Assessments at Bate Middle School. (Charlie Hall/YouTube)

Bate Middle School is a mundane ’70s-era, red-brick building. But what’s happening inside is anything but mundane. I’ve driven the 37 miles from Lexington to see one of the most closely watched efforts in the country to change the way schools assess student learning. Principal Amy Swann and the district’s Superintendent, Carmen Coleman, have completely overhauled their school’s educational philosophy, moving away from standardized tests toward an approach called performance-based assessment.

Kentucky was the first state in the nation to adopt the Common Core and the tests that align with it. But this spring, the 1,700-student Danville district will skip those tests.

On a Wednesday afternoon in late March, I am waiting in the whitewashed hallway outside Diania Henderson’s seventh-grade science class to see performance assessment in action. The seventh graders are sporting dresses, jackets, and ties. When the end-of-day bell rings, they file into the basement cafeteria, quiet and tense with only a few poking each other in the sides, for a snack of cheese crackers and Capri Suns. It is the day of the Science and Math Performance-Based Assessments, or as everyone calls them, the PBATs.

A special education student and aspiring chef earns the top mark of “Outstanding” for a detailed presentation on surface tension and various seasonings.

The whole seventh grade spreads out in small groups across the school building. Most of them are toting three-sided posterboards, like you might remember from middle school. But over the next two hours, as dusk gathers outside, it becomes clear that this is no ordinary science fair.

The entire curriculum at this school has been redesigned around interdisciplinary projects, which take several weeks to complete. The English and Social Studies 7th-grade PBATs were group projects that took place in the fall.

One by one, the students stand and give a 20-minute solo presentation with a PowerPoint or video. Separately, they’ve handed in 15-page research papers. They’re giving these presentations to panels of judges made up of teachers from other grades or the high school, officials from a neighboring district, education students from the University of Kentucky, and fellow students.

When it’s his turn, apple-cheeked Charlie Hall explains how he was able to lower the heartbeat of his Doberman, Rosie, and stop her from wolfing down her food by petting and talking to her.

Claire Strysick, with her hair in a neat bun, speaks about the impact of oil spills and presents the results of a chemical analysis of aquarium water polluted with petroleum.

I watch as student after student confidently answers questions about the steps of the scientific method, experimental design, math concepts like mean and median, and most impressively, how the project relates to his or her life. And they listen respectfully to each other, giving helpful feedback.

Most projects are graded “outstanding” or “competent.”A few are judged “needs revision,” which means the students will keep working on them until they pass muster.

There is high-level learning on display here, from the math and science content to independent research and public speaking skills. Yet Bate isn’t some gifted school. Of the 400 students, 69 percent qualify for free and reduced lunch, and 38 percent are members of minority groups. About a fifth are in special ed.

Schools Can Do Better

Five years ago, when Carmen Coleman took over as superintendent, Bate Middle School was on the state “watch list” because of its low test scores. The state commissioner even made a surprise visit to the school to decide whether to shut it down.

And so in the fall of 2011, Coleman asked her friend from graduate school at the University of Kentucky to take over as principal. “She didn’t say, ‘Come take over my worst school,'” Swann recalls with a laugh. “But I just saw amazing teachers and kids.”

Swann got right to work, reorganizing the staff, introducing project-based learning and setting expectations with a “Danville diploma” that included social and emotional skills, ethics, technological literacy, career readiness. In 2013, the school was designated an “exemplar school” by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, one of just 25 in the nation.

“There’s maybe 10 people around the country who really understand how to demonstrate authentic learning through student work, and two of them are in Kentucky,” says Tom Vander Ark, an author and former schools superintendent who has written extensively on school improvement.

What makes the Danville experiment particularly noteworthy is that Kentucky was out ahead of the nation on adoption of the Common Core State Standards for English and math. Swann believes the standards are worthwhile, but thinks schools can do better than the tests that go with them. Though the new Common Core tests have been touted as improvements over what they replaced, she says they are really “the same old multiple choice,” and adds,”I feel like on a standardized test you’re really showing what kids don’t know.”

Swann and Coleman started looking for alternatives. Together, they visited award-winning schools all over the country, such as Big Picture Learning, an international network of over 100 schools that focus on individual passions, and High Tech High, a school in New Jersey that uses computers in every class.

They were most impressed with a group of 39 schools in New York State called the Performance Standards Consortium. Since 1997, these public schools have been exempt from state standardized tests. Instead of working from textbooks, students in performance schools create research projects, both solo and in groups, and present them for detailed feedback.

Students in these schools produce documentary films. They research position papers on immigration policy, conduct scientific studies of visual perception, and create mathematics puzzles.

“It makes a big difference if kids are doing something that they care about,” says Ann Cook, the leader of the consortium and founder of Urban Academy Laboratory High School,a Manhattan public school in the consortium. According to the most recent data available, Consortium schools in New York City have a dropout rate that’s less than half the city’s — 5.3 percent compared with 11.8 percent. And these students also perform better in college.

From New York To Kentucky

In October of 2012, Swann traveled to New York to see a “moderation study,” where teachers at different performance schools get together to review each others’ assignments and examples of students’ work. This is yet another way in which performance teachers collaborate and solicit feedback to improve the quality of teaching and learning.

One assignment in particular captured Swann’s attention. “The teacher asked the students to design an amusement park ride. They had all the math in there, and physics, and it just really sparked something in me: That math doesn’t have to be this boring class with lectures and standardized tests. I said, ‘Let’s take this back to Danville.'”

When she got back from New York that fall, Swann held an all-hands staff meeting in the school library. “I said, ‘What if we designed a whole new assessment system?’ They said, ‘That’s not possible.'” Swann described all the exciting teaching and learning she’d seen in New York. “They said, ‘We like this better than the regular tests. We’ll be behind you.'”

Swann asked for an anonymous vote on the new plan, and 98 percent said yes.

A bill to allow Danville to skip the state tests unanimously passed the House in April of this year but was shot down in the Senate. The state Department of Education says discussions to find alternatives are ongoing. Regardless of what happens, the district will still give the ACT and its practice tests in 8th, 9th, 10th and 11th grades. (ACT scores are tied to scholarship money for public university students in Kentucky, and the nationally recognized test will help them benchmark student learning.)

But the yearly grind of prepping for weeks for state tests is over for now. Swann says it’s making a big difference in what teachers do every day, especially in their ability to tailor instruction to each student’s needs and interests.

With standardized tests, she says, “from August to April I have to cover this content, and it doesn’t matter if the kid is all the way up here, I have to pull them back down to review what they already know. And for the low-scoring kids, if I rush them through everything, they’ll have a better chance of guessing it on the test. Everything with school ranking and teacher ranking is based on the tests, when instruction should be based on reaching the individual student and moving them forward.”

Walk into a classroom at Bate and you can see students discussing their work together in small groups, clustered around a book or computer. The teachers circulate, ready to help where needed, or pull out a student to work one-on-one.

Kathy Merryman, the president of the Parent-Teacher Organization, has seen the evolution as her two children moved through Bate. I meet her in the hallway before the seventh grade PBATs, where she is helping a nervous student in a plaid shirt and bowtie rehearse his presentation.

“Every teacher on the staff is here for these kids,” Merryman says, “and they are here till six o’clock tonight. And any teacher is willing to help out anyone who has a question. And they’ve all embraced performance-based learning, from the most traditional teacher to the most nontraditional teacher.”

“I have never worked in a school before where the teachers are all on board with one concept and one idea,” agrees Larry Ebert, a special education teacher. “Our goals are the same, and it’s all about what’s best for the kids. It really does take that collaborative aspect in order for the students to succeed.”

Assessing Performance Assessment

Performance assessment has had a small, passionate group of supporters going back decades, especially among self-described progressive educators who think standardized tests are too blunt and too one-dimensional to measure the full range of how students learn.

It’s related to two more widespread approaches: project-based learning and portfolios. Projects, like the familiar science fair, are usually a special add-on to the regular curriculum. Portfolios, which you may remember from art or creative writing class, seek to give a richer, multidimensional picture of students’ capabilities by assembling a body of work.

These approaches allow students to follow their own interests and lean into their strengths. They are usually graded with a rubric, not a percentile. They address skills like presentation, communication, and teamwork that are common in the workplace but not part of most traditional schooling—or state-mandated testing.

On top of all that, performance assessment focuses on demonstrations of learning to outside evaluators. Students get a “reality check” by taking their learning before members of the community, and teachers who haven’t taught them.

The experiment at Bate takes this approach a step further by making performance assessment the cornerstone of the entire curriculum.

Of course, there are reasons U.S. schools have gravitated toward standardized tests instead. They’re (relatively) cheap, easily administered, and they carry the promise of some kind of “objective” measure. In other words, they’re “standardized.” Performance assessment is the opposite of all that, and that is one reason it hasn’t become widespread. With all its potential, performance assessment does set a very high bar for teachers and school leaders.

“To embrace projects and performance assessment as the core pedagogical approach is obviously a gigantic shift,” says Vander Ark. Even Cook, the head of the consortium in New York, agrees that it’s “not necessarily for everybody.”

In fact, Kentucky itself implemented a statewide high-stakes assessment system in 1992 called “KIRIS,” that included student portfolios of work, performance tasks, and tests featuring open-ended questions. A 1996 report by an outside consultant found that teachers and principals thought the system was good for instruction and raised expectations for students, but was burdensome and stressful to put in place. In 1998, the state dropped it.

However, as disquiet with standardized testing has grown, there’s been a corresponding rise in interest in performance assessment. Supporters see it as an antidote that can be rigorous and address 21st century skills while also engaging students.

The chief state school officers in Kentucky and eight other states have formed a group known as the Innovation Lab Network. These states have adopted performance-based learning as one of their “critical attributes” for a successful school. (The other states are California, Iowa, Maine, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oregon, West Virginia and Wisconsin.)

Several of these states are moving to include a performance-assessment option in public schools. Vermont is taking similar steps, and there is a New England Secondary School Consortium of 400 high schools using it as well.

With performance assessment taking root in Danville, Swann and Coleman are now moving on to expand it to more places.

Coleman has left the Danville district to take aposition at the University of Kentucky’s National Center for Innovation in Education, where she hopes to oversee the founding of a performance-standards consortium like the one in New York. A neighboring district, Trigg, has expressed interest in joining Danville in giving up state tests.

“We need to make a gigantic shift,” says Coleman, echoing Vander Ark. “Our kids are getting shortchanged because we’re trapped in this rat race of preparing for assessments.”

Amy Swann, meanwhile, has taken a new job as Chief Learning Officer at a national organization called Matchbook Learning, based in Atlanta. She will be working to turn around more bottom-five-percent “watch list” schools in Detroit, Newark, and soon possibly in New Orleans and other cities.

‘Who Bubbles In Answers At Their Job?’

While there’s no data yet on how the approach is working in Danville, support for the idea in the schools and the community is high.

Twelve-year-old Charlie Hall proves an excellent spokesperson for what’s happening in his school. “I liked school before, but now that we’ve taken this initiative into project-based learning, I really, really like it,” he says over Skype from his living room.

Growing up with his mother and stepfather in Danville, Charlie has always been a good student, cheerful and independent. Besides playing with his dog Rosie, he likes playing soccer and making videos in his spare time. His PBAT project, on Rosie’s heart rate, included an astonishingly slick video, complete with soundtrack, that his mother says he shot and edited all by himself.

“Before, we would take tests like every single day and write long answers,” he explains. “So the transition from that really tight monotonous structure to a very free-flowing environment in the classroom might be a little different at first.”

But he says he sees a huge payoff in the long term.

“Let’s get this straight — who is going to be bubbling in answers at their job? No one,” he says, sounding like just the kind of engaged, motivated learner that Danville is trying to produce. “We’re getting skills that we’re actually going to need later on in life. It’s really cool.”

Schools Fight to Skip Standardized Tests, But Keep Learning Standards High 4 June,2014Anya Kamenetz

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  • John

    How can a school (charter or traditional) or district skip standardized tests in California? Does it take legislative action?

    • Joe

      As long as you district is not interested in Title I or III funding, then opting out of standardized testing is an option. Also, ten California districts formed a consortium and received a waiver from the Feds for accountability purposes. Waivers are an option too.

  • Katie Larson

    “The same old multiple choice” and “I feel like on a standardized test you’re really showing what the kids don’t know.” WOW! I have never looked at assessments from that perspective before. It really is highlighting all that the students don’t know and that’s what is getting students and teachers down about these tests.

    The performance based assessment style done in Danville District reminds me much of the final requirement teachers must complete at Kansas State University before graduating with a teaching degree; in which undergrads create a portfolio to demonstrate understanding. I know those instructors provide feedback if students need to make revisions, but it seems like it would be a lot of grading and a lot of extra time. I wonder if anyone gets paid to grade? The positive part about the standardized tests are the fact they are computer based, and provide results that are generated not on account of teachers taking what little time they already have to grade. I did notice that there was a report that noted “teachers and principals thought the system was good for instruction and raised expectations for students, but was burdensome and stressful to put in place.”

    Out of curiosity, what did the younger students do? At what point do students stop taking standardized tests and begin performance-based tasks? Surely, the younger grade level teachers have to prepare them for this type of learning style. I wonder when, how, and what they use to support their content?

    I’m also curious how many superintendents out there are willing to be bold enough to make change, risk publicity whether it is good or bad, and put their district’s name on the line for being different in hopes to change the system?

    • Elizabeth Rubenstein

      The districts “name” is nothing compared with the tender mind of child…
      Kids get one chance to be young.. and we can guide them to learn curiosity and reflection and independence,
      or we can train them to fill in multiple-choice answers on a private corporation’s product.

  • Soniag

    Hello all!

    Project based learning had been mentioned in our preschool as an option and a possibility. It has not been taken serious by our principal or the teachers, so I am not sure if as a building it is liked. I am not sure how this approach would play in the elementary and secondary world. Our district has adopted common core and it is currently training teachers on better understanding it. Funding wise I am not sure if as a district we would be able to make a shift.

    The whole concept of project based/performance based is an awesome idea. I really think kids would benefit from this approach along with the common core because it is closer to what they might be doing out in work world. As a building it would require, in my opinion, baby steps. The staff would have to be all for it and willing to learn and shift their way of thinking and teaching. The district would then provide training for teachers to better prepare them. I would see a few schools doing first to test drive the concept and get others convinced that it works. We have a diverse student population here and we have many second language learners. This approach would give them a chance to show more of what they know and understand maybe in their own language, than trying to pass a test that would be hard to read and understand.

    • Elizabeth Rubenstein

      MY, your district officials have a lot to learn abut how pre-schoolers learn!

      The world is an integrated project and pre-schoolers naturally explore it.

      They don’t need “curriculum” just teachers who can observe and document their process.

      Check out findings, offerings and white papers from the Center for Childhood Creativity!


  • Eljeffe05

    To me “Performance based assessment” means asking a learner, “What can you show, do, and know?” For example, “A special education student and aspiring chef earns the top mark of “Outstanding” for a detailed presentation on surface tension and various seasonings.” I wonder if the prescribed assessment would have covered surface tension and seasoning meat in its scope. This student was able to show what he can do, across multiple content areas, all things worth assessing. I love that this school crosses disciplines (when are the issues we face in life one dimensional?) and that their units last several weeks. Presenting your work to a panel that is highly diverse in its composition…this is a great way to “assess.” Students discuss, “how the project relates to his or her life.” Yes, how is this relevant to our students personally? Like the article says, “It makes a big difference if kids are doing something that they care about.”

    The grading framework and the requirement to continue working until a project is deemed “competent” or “complete” insures accountability and that understanding will occur. The use of PBL and the “Danville diploma”…this school looks impressive. I love the line, “the standards are worthwhile, but (she) thinks schools can do better than the tests that go with them.” I agree completely! The schools in New York that are moving away from textbooks and towards projects, I wish we saw more of this across the nation. Less teaching to the test, and more meeting learners’ needs and interests, this is what we need. PBL and the use of portfolios encourage teamwork, and ownership (and pride) in their efforts.

    The point that this alternate method is, “not necessarily for everybody” is a good one. One size fits all, it doesn’t work always work that way. We do need choices for parents and their children. However, I’m glad to see the methods shown here are gaining wider acceptance and use. “Who bubbles in answers at their job?”…exactly!

  • kylejin

    I really love the ideas of project-based learning and performance-based assessment in our classrooms, which not only encourage our students to search for and do something they really care about, but also allow our students to demonstrate what they know and could do.

    There is no question that our schools and teachers are working their tails off in teaching students important content of various disciplines with a goal that, after measurements, all students can surpass the set standards. And it is also true that no one bubbles in answers at their job. It seems both project-based learning and performance-based assessment should be the paradigms for educators nowadays. Then why are we still using standardized tests to measure our students’ learning and their academic achievement? Looking deeper beyond all the greatness and praises, there must be some limitations withholding project-based learning and performance-based assessment from replacing the standardized tests in question.

    The case we learned in article works very well in school-based assessment. However, if every school sets up its own standards or system of assessment, how should we compare these various standards and assessment systems? It seems to me that, at the end of the day, we still need a set of more generalizing and centralized measurement to evaluate/test different individual school assessments.

    Secondly, do our students have the same technologically-leveled playing field when their learning/performance are assessed? Do our students enjoy the same level of technological resources so that all students have the same set of tools to build their project, and one can be sure that it is students own knowledge, talent and skills are measured in those eye-catching and fascinating final product of their project?

    I think the real subject in the ongoing debates regarding standardized test is how learning should be measured beyond individual school-level assessment. What alternatives do we have in order to replace or at least improve existing learning measurement system used
    at state-level or national-level?

  • MrsK

    Wow! I wish I could get my middle schoolers to work as hard
    as the students in this article! I know that it is possible but know that the
    culture or shift cannot happen in one classroom alone. As mentioned, it takes
    the whole school, administration and teachers all getting on the same path, truly
    buying in to the goal of raising the “standards”. Our school has tried to
    incorporate more project-based learning but I’m not so sure that our teachers
    have enough training to make it as effective as the Danville district. One
    component that I really admire about the way Danville structured their
    project-based learning was the emphasis on cross-curriculum components. I think
    that this aspect is truly key for students to understand and practice, prior to
    heading into careers in the real world. Many careers require workers to be
    successful at making many pieces to the puzzle (or project) fit together.

    In my personal opinion, there is more meaningful learning
    going on in the Danville district that in those still teaching to the ‘new’
    test. Students who find purpose in their learning experiences are more engaged
    and invested in the results. If students get to incorporate things they are
    passionate about while learning, we have then succeeded in fostering lifelong
    learner who are self-sufficient in problem solving and critical thinking.

  • Elizabeth Rubenstein

    If teachers were just allowed to TEACH and stop worrying about the tests,
    (because their districts are held hostage to the test by funding)
    students would do fine!

    Though really I believe standardized tests only benefit the private corporations that publish them.


    This is a great article! This year my 5th graders will lose about 30 hours of instruction time just for the state assessments. 15 days of testing! What struck me about project based learning in this article is the fact that within the midst of the assessment students are still learning. The product at the end is assessed, but the process to get there is an amazing learning opportunity. Kansas’s Common Core aligned standardized assessments are not drastically different from before, as the article stated about the tests in Kentucky. Not all of the questions are multiple choice anymore, but there is still a limit to what can be asked and assessed on a computer based standardized test. My biggest problem with standardized testing has always been that I spend all year teaching students about tools and strategies that will enhance their learning, and then they are unable to use many of those tools and strategies on the testing.
    I have done minimal research into what genuine project based learning would look like in a classroom. I love the idea, but then I get overwhelmed thinking about it. However, reading this article has made me want to read more about it, and hopefully get prepared to implement it at least partially next year.

  • Jandee Kruse

    Charlie Hall hit the head on the nail! I can’t think of a job off the top of my head that requires you to sit and fill in a tiny bubble as to a question that gets thrown to you in your career. I have attended a couple PBL seminars and can attest to the relevancy that is promoted during a “unit”. I have done 2 PBL unit lessons that the kids totally rocked! One lesson geared around constructing dikes the other using the soybean crop (thanks Mr. McCornack @ KSU)! Through cooperative learning and individual practice, students were able to customize their project to allow that sense of ownership. Technology was a huge component to the project as well as a presentation phase. I believe that PBL looks very different at each grade level and should be scaffold effectively to reach its full potential.

    Something I have struggled with as a second grade teacher looking into State Assessments is the amount of time that is sucked out of a “testing day” in order to complete the parts/sections assigned. That time could effectively be spent providing additional instruction not wasted in front of a screen checking the correct box.

    On another note…I am very proud of Carmen Coleman in recognizing her deficiencies and taking the necessary actions. Many teachers/administrators would not have relinquished their career to someone else on a whim…kudos to her for acknowledging the issue and taking action.

  • Jessica

    The fight against standardized testing is a fight I will stand firm with. Therefore, I agree with the following comments on this article. However, I do know that making that shift towards performance based assessments is not as easy as it sounds. I second the many other comments here who state that making that shift requires the whole school to be on board. One classroom cannot opt out of standardized testing, as badly as they may want to. Schools must take baby steps to changing their frame of mind towards performance based assessments and away from trapping our students in standardized test preparation chaos.

    Are there setbacks to PBL? Of course there are; they tend to be more time-consuming assessments, may require more work on the teachers and students behalf, and it may be more difficult to compare scores and students achievement against those of other schools. On the flip side, there are more productive effects than negative. Project-based learning allows students to follow their interests, lean into their strengths, and address skills such as presentation, communication, and teamwork that would not be possible with standardized tests. I am so excited that several states now have adopted the idea that PBL is a “critical attribute” to success. I have yet to read an article which states a school had a negative experience or decreased success with PBL. There are only success stories! Clearly this is the way to go, and I hope to contribute to this shift in my future career as a teacher.

  • Jennifer Boss

    As PBL becomes more and more a part of the everyday classroom, I am becoming more and more eager to learn more about it and research/see the benefits it provides to our students first hand. I only wish that someday our district could take a stand and say no more to the state standardized testing and the general teach to the test mentality. I would love to see our district adopt a PBL learning approach similar to that of the Danville district. I could see the difficulty in doing this readily, however. The idea of having a project based learning classroom is something that many teachers would have to learn to love. Just like anything it would be a learning curve, and would require the entire team to be on board for it work. It would also require the district staff to be on board with providing additional training and support. I love to read about the successes of other schools and districts, as it sheds light on the fact that some day we may all be able to embrace this new way of learning. I also find it enlightening to hear that Bate Middle School was not just any school, but similar to my school a school with a high percentage of free and reduced lunch students. It helps paint a picture that student population should not hold us back. I am eager to see what changes our future will bring!

  • Jinhua Wang

    I really love this article because it tells us with true stories that skipping standardized tests but using performance-based assessments is applicable and feasible. Although we need baby steps and time to shift traditional ways of thinking and teaching, we’ve got to change and do it. We want our kids to succeed in the future and we want them to become problem-solving life learners and use critical thinking on issues that they will encounter in reality. However, time-consuming and energy-consuming standardized tests step in the way to stop our kids from moving forward. Kids become stressful and lose interest in learning because they are not doing things that they care about. I have true experience on standardized tests, so I know how awful that kind of feeling is. When I was studying in China, we had to take so many standardized tests every week, every month, every semester and every year. I was so tired of standardized tests. When it was time to prepare for the test, I had to push myself so hard and try to memorize all the facts and details just to pass the test. However, one or two weeks after the test, I simply forgot all of them and couldn’t recall anything that is meaningful in the test. I truly agree that the standardized test is just to check how much I don’t know about the content knowledge but not what I already knew and how I can use the knowledge beyond the textbooks. It was a shame to say that we have so many ‘high scores but low capability’ students in China just because of the stupid standardized tests. Students are shortchanged and not confident challenging some problem-solving skills because they are taught to use a standard answer. How sad it is!!! There are more than one way to solve a problem and we want the students to be creative on answers. We don’t want to see a uniform answer, especially for some real life situations. That is why I wish I could be at one of the schools where performance-based assessments are used. More options mean more possibilities and more opportunities. We have to respect students’ needs and interests and make adjustments to teaching and assessments in order to ensure the success in education. We definitely want to educate versatile talents not dull robots.

  • Kim McWilly

    I loved reading this article. Recently I have chosen to do a research paper over project based learning as I want to implement it into my classroom. I love that this Kentucky school struck out on their own path and decided to a problem bases assessment without the full support of their state. The pay of student enrichment is worth it. The assessment was filled with instructional/ learning time for the student and incorporated different content areas into one. When students make meaningful connections their learning is deeper. Plus this type of assessment allows students to not just work the typical curriculum but rather the “hidden curriculum”, other things we want our students to leave our class knowing, such as emotional skills, technological literacy, and presenting. This type of assessment is something they can take with them into any job scenario whether they go to college or straight into their careers.

    Although I’m in love with this type of assessment I see many potential falls of its implementation. At this school teachers were committed and dedicated. It noted many of them staying until 6 in the evening planning and helping other teachers. They also noted that the “moderation study” was a collaboration of teachers who worked together to look at assignments and student work. In order for it to work the teachers have to take constructive criticism and leave ego’s at the door. This type of atmosphere and work requirements isn’t for everyone. Not to be pessimistic but some teachers don’t want to do their best they just want to do enough. Getting the right crew of teachers is essential but if teachers aren’t fulfilling the requirements getting rid of them can be tricky. So if you can’t pick your team how do you ensure everyone to buy in?

    Great article and lots to think about.

  • Kim McWilly

    I loved reading this article. Recently I have chosen to do a research paper over project based learning as I want to implement it into my classroom. I love that this Kentucky school struck out on their own path and decided to do a problem based assessment without the full support. This risk is worth the student enrichment. The assessment was filled with instructional/ learning time for the students and incorporated different content areas together. When students make meaningful connections their learning is deeper. Plus this type of assessment allows students to not just work the typical curriculum but rather the “hidden curriculum”, other skills/knowledge we want our students to leave our class knowing, such as emotional skills, technological literacy, and presenting. This type of assessment is something they can take with them into any job scenario whether they go to college or straight into their careers.

    Although I’m in love with this type of assessment I see many potential falls of its implementation. At this school, teachers were committed and dedicated. It noted many of them staying until 6 in the evening planning and helping other teachers. They also noted that the “moderation study” was a collaboration of teachers who worked together to look at assignments and student work. In order for these types of scenarios to succeed teachers have to take constructive criticism and be open to modifying their teaching style. Getting the right crew of teachers is essential but if teachers aren’t fulfilling the requirements getting rid of them can be tricky. So if you can’t pick your team how do you ensure everyone to buy in? Where have other schools tried to implement problem based learning?

    Great article and lots to think about.

  • E. DeMars

    I LOVED reading this article! This shows what education can really be and helping students achieve the concepts using their interests and SHOWING they understand. I really think the idea of performance-based assessments helps build students up. I think Charlie said it best when he said, ‘Who is going to be bubbling in answers at their job? No one. We are getting skills that we’re actually going to need later on in life.” I mean that’s the idea of education isn’t it: to prepare students for the future? To help them learn skills that they will use throughout their lives? The joy that the little boy in this article seemed to have because of the new way of learning in his school proves that education can be a fun environment that students love to come to, instead of the boring lecture and standardized testing environment we are creating now. Like they said, its not about getting rid of the standards; its about assessing them in a way that allows them to show us what they know.

    When I read the paragraph about some of the reasons we use standardized tests, I was a little taken aback. It seems to point out the “ease” of standardized testing. If teachers chose education for its ‘ease,’ we probably have some bigger issues on our hands! Teaching kids is not meant to be easy! It takes getting to know students individually and knowing what helps them learn. This means that a cookie cutter curriculum or standardized test for that matter aren’t going to benefit all of the students. With project-based assessments, the student gets to take a concept and present it how they want in a way that interests them. We are much more likely to see positive results in this manner! Also, I loved the idea that students get a chance to revise their projects if it doesn’t meet the mark. With a standardized test, it’s one and done; you either pass or you don’t. I agree that the emphasis should be put on what the students do know, not on what they don’t.

  • Jiayi Li

    Schools are looking for good assessments other than
    standardized tests to see students’ learning performance. Students often feel standardized tests are
    showing what they don’t know. In some art schools, students produce documentary
    films as assessments. They research and explore new things on their own by completing
    these tasks. Many teachers in schools think instruction should be based on
    reaching the individual student and moving them forward but not on standardized
    tests. Some schools have performance-based learning which means they want
    students to learn thinning by doing and teachers are facilitate students when
    they need help. The author also said performance assessment is a good way that schools
    could have for students. It has project-0based learning and portfolios. These
    forms of assessments give students opportunities to practice communication
    skills, presentation and teamwork.

    In my Chinese class, I could do different kinds of
    assessments to my students. For example, I could ask students to do a project
    in a group. Each group member has a task to complete. They have the same goal
    and share resources together. Students are learning by themselves and help each
    other during the process. It gives students opportunities to practice communication
    sills and engage their learning interests.

  • Trish Raymond

    Even in my youth, I felt as if the test were not a true reflection of knowledge. Instead, it is only a reflection of an individual’s ability to comprehend and amazing short term memory. After graduating from a public school in Oklahoma, I chose to attend a private university. The university did not test as a means of measurement. Instead, they assigned research assignments that required students to comprehend, analysis, understand, evaluate and apply. Students demonstrated understanding through their explanation and research submitted. It was all encompassing of Bloom’s Taxonomy and didn’t once require me to access my short term memory or crash study for an exam. To this day, I will say that I learned more from when I was writing 20-page research assignments than I did throughout my entire secondary education. Common Core is nothing more than other means to test short term memory. Students are not learning to retain. They are learning to survive a test.

    This article has provided with hope, that one day, education will matter more than the numbers produced for statistical measurement to measure a study with far too many unknown variables to be truly accurate. Performance Testing is classical education at its finest. Students will begin to learn for fun and will fall out of their robot mindsets. They will explore new interest and through research, while completing their assignment, they will far beyond our expectations. Every school should be Performance Testing.

  • Jen F

    This was an interesting read, it’s not often you hear a story about throwing conventional assessment measures out the window. I think one of the key points that was made was that all teachers have to be on board with overhauling the system—I was amazed at how many teachers backed the idea. If you don’t have the motivation to make changes, it won’t happen. Project based learning can be incredibly powerful if it is well thought out in terms of the expectations for students and the expectations for assessment. One of the keys to making this work was the collaboration among teachers and working across disciplines. I love that this school included the idea of having their students work on social and emotional skills, that’s something that you don’t necessarily hear that much about in middle school, but is so incredibly important. Since this post is now a couple years old, I wonder how their experiment is progressing.

    I also thought the idea they gained in New York, in terms of teachers giving feedback to each other about their assignments was interesting. I wonder how difficult it was initially for that sort of exchange, its not always easy to put something out there for others to potentially tear apart.

  • Leah

    The idea of making the bold shift from standardized assessment to performance based assessment is exciting. I enjoyed this article and admire the work done at this school. There is no question that the emphasis placed on standardized assessment through the No Child Left Behind era has had a profound impact on the way instruction has been delivered. Teachers are often accused of “teaching to the test” in order to prepare their students for the best possible chance of scoring well on such assessments. This may (or may not) actually prepare students to be successful on those tests but more importantly does not guarantee that they are in any way prepared for life. Performance based assessments and portfolios offer students a chance at demonstrating their knowledge in meaningful, practical ways. They provide students with a way to engage with and synthesize their learning in ways that no standardized assessment has been able to achieve. With all that said, I agree that performance based assessment, on a large scale, is challenging to accomplish and a difficult comparable measure. Each teacher, school, district would approach this in different ways, making it difficult to see if all students are being prepared effectively to be successful. This is an interesting challenge, I’m excited to see where this trend goes and how schools creatively infuse meaningful assessment for students.

  • Elizabeth Reicher

    I want to point out that this article is preaching to the choir. How can educators convince our stakeholders that this is the best way to assess and challenge our learners? This message has been out there for quite some time and yet few are adopting these meaningful learning experiences. Quite frankly, I think that many stakeholders want their children to have the same education experiences that they had. Well I for one want my own children to have a better education than I experienced.

    Growing up, I loved school. I lived in a small community in north central Kansas and the church and the school were the two focal points in the community. I never realized until much later that while I enjoyed learning, I was not being challenged or enriched. Luckily I was born with a creative mind, and always saw things outside the box. I have been lucky. My parents exposed me to many activities in the community and supported my creative nature. I had all of the advantages. I learned quickly, had a great deal of background knowledge, and I could see the big picture in most the content I encountered.

    My own children have the same advantages, and yet they are still stuck in the same Victorian system that I grew up in. I cannot tell you how many worksheets my children have done over the years. My boys found these excruciating as they struggled with penmanship. They often became frustrated and decided not to show their knowledge as a result. Their true knowledge was exposed when special projects came up in class, but these were few and far between. I do not find fault with their teachers, but with an archaic approach to education that seems to continue in our society.

    Fortunately, as a music educator, these types of assessment are naturally built into my content area. Learners are exposed to the elements of music and then asked to piece them together and present what they have learned. This could happen through individual or group performance, or maybe through composition. I am fortunate to teach a subject that is so approachable and engaging.
    I have never had a student who did not want to play a musical instrument. I have many students who love to sing, but there are a few who are just too reserved or shy to express themselves in that medium. I have found that these learners make the best musicians. Music allows learners to express themselves and take ownership of their learning on their own terms and find success.

    All educators endeavor to provide performance-based activities whenever possible, but are being limited by the pressure of standardized testing. Another testing season is upon us and I think of all of the anxiety our students and teachers are facing. When are the decision makers ever going to get it? How do teachers take control of learning? These are the ongoing questions that have yet to be answered.

  • amyesrb

    There are many aspects about this article that really hit home to me, as a public school educator and on a very personal level as a mother to a young son. It intrigued me from the beginning when I read that the basis for this article is in Kentucky. I am a military spouse; my husband is an Active Duty Army Officer, therefore we move every few years. Our son is only two years old, and I have been blessed to be able to stay at home with him, so we have not yet “worried” about the school systems for him. However, this especially interests me about Kentucky because, although my husband is about eight years from military retirement, we already discuss our future and where we want to “settle down.” Our list so far includes Kentucky! This article absolutely excites me for the hope of positive, engaging, motivating, and real-life learning for my son in his future, and not just teaching to the test.

    Before having our son, I taught middle school math in Ohio. At the time, our students took the Ohio Achievement Tests/Assessments, so I can very much relate to the feeling of wasting classroom instructional time just to prepare for and take the tests. I remember these frustrations, and I really like Elizabeth’s Rubenstein’s comment below: If teachers were just allowed to TEACH and stop worrying about the tests…students would do fine!” I do agree with Amy Swann’s idea in the article, “Swann believes the (Common Core State) standards are worthwhile, but thinks schools can do better than the tests that go with them.” As Elizabeth commented, I just wanted to TEACH!

    I think Danville school district’s strategy to skip the tests and implement project based learning with Performance-Based Assessments
    is brilliant. I love the idea of a curriculum with project-based assessments that engages the students to learn, based on what interests and motivates each student, and what will best benefit the students in their future beyond the school walls. As many others have also noted, Charlie Hall says it best when he states, “We’re getting skills that we’re actually going to need later on in life.” I also like Eljeffe05’s comment below, “To me, “Performance based assessment” means asking a learner, what can you show, do and know?” Answering these questions in a performance-based assessment provides much more useful information to educators about their students’ knowledge than does
    a guessing, multiple choice, and fill in the bubbles assessment can do.

    While this all sounds so ideal and “perfect,” I do understand that there are challenges to implementing project-based learning and
    Performance-Based Assessments. I agree with MrsK’s comment below, “As mentioned, it takes the whole school, administration
    and teachers all getting on the same path, truly buying in to the goal of raising the standards.” It will not happen in just one classroom, and it will not be successful unless the students see the collaboration and effort from all of the staff; seeing the staff excited will motivate the students to become engaged in their learning also. I also understand that this teaching and learning strategy can be time consuming. Again, with the collaboration of all staff members, students, parents, and the community, I believe that Performance-Based Assessments can be
    effective, and worth the time and effort put in by all. I truly enjoyed reading this article; it gives me great hope for positive, meaningful experiences both for me returning to teaching someday, and my son beginning public school in a few years!

  • Kara Stucky

    I’ve heard of performance-based assessment before but I feel like I have a much better understanding of what it is and why it is so valuable after reading this article. I think this type of assessment gives a more well rounded picture of what a student has actually learned, while allowing them to practice valuable skills. Skills such as research, collaboration, and higher-order thinking skills like analysis and evaluation are essential for students to be successful in our information rich society.

    As I read this article, I found myself wishing I could teach in a school like the one described in Danville. One of the keys to a successful program is designing curriculum that is interdisciplinary. Students need to be able to take what they’ve learning in various subjects and combine it to create their final presentation. I’m interested to learn more about their actual curriculum. Do students present several projects throughout the year or is it just one culminating project presented towards the end of the school year? Also, how do teachers go about preparing students for this type of assessment? I would imagine that students participate in inquiry, research, and communicating their learning in smaller projects throughout the year. As students complete these projects and receive feedback, it would help prepare them for their final performance-based assessment.

  • Sibyl Miller

    I thought this article was well written and I was able to agree with what it was saying. I am not a huge fan of standardized tests by any means. Performance based assessments would allow for assessing of areas in which standardized tests cannot assess. Performance based assessments are what we should be moving towards. Students who struggle because of socioeconomic status and/or students who receive SPED services have a greater chance of succeeding with PBAT. PBAT takes into consideration students who may not be able to perform well on tests, but they can perform well in the classroom or on a project. One thing I liked about PBAT was the fact that technology can be included. The students in Kentucky had a powerpoint or short video as part of their presentation. Teaching students skills in regards to technology is huge because of where we are headed as a society. You must have knowledge about technology and how to use it. Although standardized tests are cheaper and easier to administer, they do not do students, teachers, or schools justice. PBAT might be harder and more time consuming for the teacher, but it gives students an opportunity to show what they know and what they are able to do. Teachers are able to assess more areas outside of just content. I think PBAT is a great alternative to standardized tests and it is something we should be moving towards as a society.

  • Ashley Nunez

    I absolutely loved this article and it made my teacher heart smile! I think the young student, Charlie, really hit the nail on the head when he stated, “who is going to be bubbling in answers at their job? No one”. Life and professions are not multiple choice. Adults need to know how to problem solve, reason, communicate, and work with others to be successful. Students must begin cultivating these skills at young ages and I believe it is part of the school system’s job to help students in this endeavor. Bates Middle School sounds like they are on the right track to making this a reality! The concept of allowing students to show their knowledge through hands on performance assessments instead of standardized multiple choice tests makes so much more sense. With these, the teachers are able to assess students on both content knowledge and the use of 21st century skills that are so vital to future success. The students in the article appear to have a lot of buy-in to their projects and find them meaningful and worthwhile. This is another huge benefit of performance assessments. Unfortunately, in my ten years of teaching, I have never heard my students talk positively about standardized assessments.
    Although I agree wholeheartedly with the ideas in this article, the actual implementation does give me pause. I think the only way for this type of assessment system to work is with 100% teacher buy-in. There must be ample time given for planning and cross-curricular collaboration. Also, teachers must be willing to put in the extra effort these types of assessments require. It is my hope that these things would be true for all teachers but that is not always the case.

  • Alex Brown

    Standardized testing and all the work that goes into prepping kids for them is something that is always highly debated and primarily criticized by teachers across the country. It is really refreshing to hear about schools like this that are taking initiative to assess students in a new way that does not just involve them bubbling in multiple choice answers on a testing sheet. Reading other comments on hear, it seems like many people agreed that there was an excellent point made in there is not a job that is going to involving bubbling in answers on the job. We expect our kids to come out of school prepared for what they are going to face next in life, whether that be college, military, or the workforce. Having assessments designed like this where students are taking what they are learning and showcasing this learning through high levels of research and planning, followed by a formal presentation. Those are things that people are doing in their jobs. I feel like I could name countless jobs where you have to research, plan, and present some formal finding related to the company or organization that you are working for. The other aspect that I really like about the projects these students are doing is the way that they relate it to the real world and/or their lives. The student that chose to do his project based on his dog was a great example and a great way to differentiate learning for a student that has special needs. All of this was done in a school that has a high number of low SES, so there is no reason to think that teachers/administrators in wealthier districts could not do something like this as well.

  • Chen Han

    I really love reading this article because it shows what kinds of education can indeed be conducted and helping students learning the knowledge using their interests and showing they understand. I was able to agree with the author’s idea of performance-based assessments helps build students up. China’s current education system is still an examination-oriented, so test results are the main assessment. When I was studying in China, we had many standardized tests every semester. I was terrified and tired of preparing and taking standardized tests. To cope with the examination, I accustomed to rote learning, which translates to good grades but does not encourage creativity. However, after the exam, I had burnout even forgotten all of the knowledge that I reviewed for the test. As a result, many Chinese students like me, even those with high scores, often do low abilities when it comes to the practical application of what they have learned. I totally agree that standardized test only shows what students do not know from learning knowledge, but not what they already know and how they use the knowledge in future life. In my opinion, even, the hardest thing in education is motivation, Chinese educators should give students a chance to show what parts they know, and learn the parts they do not understand.

  • J Beugelsdijk

    I enjoyed reading about Bate Middle School in Kentucky and how project-based learning and assessment is being implemented over high-stakes state testing. The real-world implications for this sort of assessment are perhaps the biggest positive over the current testing system. As one of the students noted, “Who is going to be bubbling in answers at their job?” Making the students’ assessments authentic and aligned with students’ interests seems to be the most logical break from standardized testing, although the time and effort could be considered too much. However, isn’t the current standardized testing also expensive, time-consuming, and requires effort that most teachers and students are not enthusiastic about? I remember culminating projects such as these in my own student career, and those assessments were ones that I was most proud of and were most memorable. I believe that the current testing system teaches us little, if anything, about who our students are. Performance assessment could teach us far more beyond testing about who they are, what their skills are beyond school, and who they want to be. The payoff for assessing students in this way would be fare more than numbers-only data we receive from the standardized tests.

  • Lauren Laudan

    This article was so refreshing to read! After I finished reading, I was given a sense of hope that other states and school districts will see the success the Danville district has seen and want to adopt the Science and Math Performance-Based Assessment, or PBATs. Instead of standardized testing, this district has redesigned their entire curriculum to focus on interdisciplinary projects, which take the students several weeks to complete. “These approaches allow students to follow their own interests and lean into their strengths. They are usually graded with
    a rubric, not a percentile. They address skills like presentation, communication, and teamwork that are common in the workplace”. Not only are the students engaged in their projects, they come out getting real life experience with presenting, answering questions, and working as a team. These skills are much more useful for students in their future than simply bubbling an answer choice. “I watch as student after student confidently answers questions about the steps of the scientific method, experimental design, math concepts like mean and median, and most impressively, how the project relates to his or her life”.

    I hope this article can gives school hope when realizing that this particular middle school was almost shut down due to such low test
    scores. Although it will take lots of time, preparation of teachers, and funding to allow other schools the same success Danville has seen, I believe it would be so worth it.

  • Jennifer Farr

    While reading the article I kept coming back to the idea of highlighting student growth and how that is the main objective of good teaching and good learning. I want to share this with Randy Watson, Kansas Education Commissioner, as a model for what Kansas should/could be doing instead of standardized assessment.

    Students who have buy in to their learning, who have ownership, choice, and can demonstrate their own learning will undoubtedly be able to achieve at higher levels than those who just do what the teacher commands. The student with special needs who used his knowledge as a chef and achieved an “outstanding” mark on his project demonstrates this. The job and role of a teacher is to meet students where they are and take them to where they need to be. Kentucky is doing this with much success.

    I think schools need to step back and ask the question “What is the role of standardized assessments?” Why do we use assessments? How is the data driving our instruction? I will be quite frank, the results that I receive from my state assessments are looked at once, then tossed aside as I move on to the next topic I need to teach. These do not drive my instruction because students are different each year. It is like comparing apples and oranges. However, if I could use my students’ previous performance assessments and help them grow in areas they are weak, then my impact, as an educator would be much higher.

    I encourage all educational decision makers, education policy makers, principals and teachers to take a close look at how Kentucky is winning at demonstrating student growth. They give students choice, autonomy, buy in, and the ability to be successful. Good teaching at its best!!

  • Tiffany Smith

    I love this school’s brave choice to allow students to create and present action research in place of standardized assessments. As educators, we know that student choice and interest are two huge motivational factors in learning. Yet, we seem to remove both of these factors within these standardized assessments that have such a heavy influence on our student’s overall education.

    Over the years I have worked in schools that have not met AYP (annual yearly progress) and schools that were deemed schools of excellence due to their assessment scores. Within both schools, one common thread that I have observed is that there is a constant, nagging of stress in the air that develops within students and teachers each testing season as we were pressed to meet the mark. Additionally, there are now so many rewards and punishments that are tied to these scores it causes me to wonder if we have forgotten about the goal of creating life long learners in all of this. Honestly, each test prep season has begun to feel like a grinding chore that we must get through until we can get back to the real fun part of teaching and student learning. This article has inspired me to see that there is a hope for a solution in all of this through project-based learning.

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