Performance Assessment: What Is It and Why Use It?

By Author and Educational Consultant Susan M. Brockhart, Ph.D.

Pretend you are an elementary student, and your class is learning to interpret direction and distance on a map. Which would you rather do, take a test on map skills or plan and describe a safari across a map full of interesting places with exotic sights to see? Pretend you are a middle school language arts student, and your class is learning about imagery in poetry. Which assessment would show you understand imagery deeply, a test with questions like circle the similes or an opportunity to write a brief poem centered on a meaningful (to you) image? Pretend you are an anatomy student who wants to be a doctor some day. Which would feel closer to your dream, a paper-and-pencil anatomy test or a series of exercises using a human body simulator?

While a test is an efficient way to gather evidence about students’ conceptual knowledge, a performance assessment is a better tool for gathering evidence about what students can do with their knowledge. Effective performance assessments allow students to apply knowledge to solve a problem or demonstrate a skill. In performance assessments, students demonstrate or construct something, and that work is assessed using observation and judgment, often using a tool like a rubric.

Performance assessment is especially useful for assessing students’ achievement of complex learning standard (e.g., analyzing author’s purpose), assessing their ability to apply concepts they learned to solve problems (e.g., using understanding of past presidential elections to predict what will happen in this presidential election), and assessing skills (e.g., using an electronic library card catalog). As a colleague once said, “The only way to know if they can swim is to put them in the pool.” Some simple skills, though (e.g., kindergarten students making equal sets with colored counters) are also best assessed by observing student performance.

Performance tasks must be carefully designed so that the student responses really do give evidence of the knowledge and skills we are trying to assess. Performance criteria must be clear and help students focus on those things, particularly, so they can “show what they know.” Performance tasks help show students what real work in a discipline looks like — what it means to be a writer, mathematician, historian, or scientist, for example. And when students understand the criteria for success with a learning task and apply those criteria as they work, research shows that their performance — and their achievement — increases.

Next time you are planning a unit, take a look at the learning goals you intend your students to achieve. Find one or more that lend themselves to performance assessment, and try it out!


For deeper insight into performance assessment, check out Dr. Brookhart’s comprehensive webinar below:

SUSAN M. BROOKHART, Ph.D., is an independent educational consultant and author based in Helena, Montana. She also currently serves as an adjunct faculty member in the School of Education at Duquesne University. Dr. Brookhart was the 2007–2009 Editor of Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, and is currently an Associate Editor of Applied Measurement in Education. She is author or co-author of seventeen books and over 70 articles and book chapters on classroom assessment, teacher professional development, and evaluation. Dr. Brookhart’s research interests include the role of both formative and summative classroom assessment in student motivation and achievement, the connection between classroom assessment and large-scale assessment, and grading. Dr. Brookhart also works with schools, districts, regional educational service units, universities, and states doing professional development. Dr. Brookhart received her Ph.D. in Educational Research and Evaluation from The Ohio State University, after teaching in both elementary and middle schools.

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