Performance-Based Tests Take the Guesswork Out of Assessing

Marianne’s multiple-choice test was the easiest things in the world to grade.  A, B, A, D, D, B….it’s right or it’s wrong and I move on. The problem is that in mathematics, all “A” really tells me is that Marianne (not her real name) can write down a letter.  There are a dozen different reasons why she might write the correct answer.  Maybe she got lucky.  Maybe she figured out a trick to find the answer without knowing how to do the actual problem.  Or maybe she genuinely knows how to solve it.  But regardless of the reason, “A” tells me very little about whether or not Marianne understands the content.

More difficult to grade, but ultimately much more helpful to me as a teacher, are open response, or performance-based tests. They don’t have bubbles.  You can’t guess your way to the answer.  They require reading, thought and time on the student’s part and considerable preparation on mine.  But it’s all worth it because at the end I can see the student’s thoughts on paper in a way I can’t with multiple choice tests.

Our goal as educators should be to prepare students for the challenges of tomorrow.  Our kids need to be able to see a problem, break it down, solve it and explain their solution, and if we’re honest with ourselves we need to be assessing their capacity to do just that.  This is why I support the implementation of the new Common Core-aligned assessments.  Instead of multiple choice, these tests ask students to complete open responses that require them to show their work and display their thinking.  No more lucky answers.  Proficiency is only possible now if a student truly understands the content.

I’m not just advocating for a fuzzy and hypothetical scenario.  To prepare for full Common Core implementation next year, I decided to introduce its elements into my classroom now.  Every test I give includes at least one performance-based question that draws on multiple skills and requires multiple steps.  It’s been a struggle at times but every day my students are getting better at explaining their thoughts on any given problem.

When I graded my most recent tests, I could see who among my students truly understood the concepts and who didn’t.  Those who did understand answered questions like “prove that this shape is a parallelogram” by drawing on their calculations and writing out explanations.  And I could now identify those who didn’t and push them to higher levels of understanding.  In Marianne’s case, I saw that she couldn’t explain her work.  I never would’ve known this if she’d just answered “A.”

The skills we build in our students through Common Core-based assessments represent an important step towards preparing them for college and future careers. We want our students to become critical thinkers and to apply the skills they learn in a variety of open-ended contexts.  No college professor or employer is likely to ever ask Marianne to find x or solve a problem by picking a letter.  It is much more likely that she will be given a complex task that requires application of knowledge from across a wide variety of disciplines, which is exactly what these tests are designed to do.

Students will rise to the level of expectations we place upon them.  And when expectations are low we shouldn’t be surprised when outcomes disappoint.  Multiple choice assessments fail to encourage true critical thinking in our students.  For teachers, they fail to illuminate a child’s true understanding of a subject.  Common Core-based assessments put our students’ critical thinking skills on full display and empower educators everywhere to prepare them for success throughout the rest of their lives.

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Jon Alfuth

Jon Alfuth is a high school geometry teacher at the Soulsville Charter School in Memphis. He is a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow, a member of the inaugural class of the Tennessee Educator Fellowship, and the editor of the blog. He is on Twitter as @bluffcityed.

The SCORE Sheet is the online conversation on public education reform in Tennessee and is hosted by SCORE. The blog mirrors SCORE’s collaborative nature and features contributors from Tennessee and across the country including students, parents, teachers, policymakers, community groups, and members of SCORE’s team. Regardless of perspective, contributors share a common goal: that every child graduates from high school prepared for college or the workforce.

Posts on The SCORE Sheet are the opinions of the individual contributors and are not necessarily reflective of the opinions and positions of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE).