More Accurate Testing? Performance Assessments Help Teachers See Student Learning

When students look at me for help, I try to smile while I try not to help them. In our business of schooling, as instructional leaders, we are always trying to guide the learning. By we I mean me—and others who think like me. Not every teacher can see accurately what students are learning, especially when there is a teacher-proof curriculum that must be delivered, tested, and re-tested. There is still some guiding of learning going on when teaching any curriculum, but it is harder to see individual learning. In fact it is always hard to see individual learning even under the best circumstances. Teachers like to see students do their own work because this is the most authentic part of teaching and learning…travelling the same thinking paths of the student..and guiding them to better learning through questioning that makes them think. Performance assessments, such as science projects, short essays, interviews, group work, and student-centered learning techniques can help teachers see students more accurately.


Most schools are under tremendous pressure to perform as measured by a set of metrics. Teachers are responsible for compliance issues such as attendance, COVID19 protocols, online learning, technology and the scope and sequence of the district’s curriculum and for testing issues such as standardized tests of reading and writing. What does not get complied with, or tested, is the learning. Of course we measure the learning through testing, but the learning is summed up in several numbers and that seems narrow, inaccurate, and short-sighted. What teachers are usually good at is questions and students are equally good at non-standardized answers. Questions get students thinking and this leads to the process of learning. But how should we measure this?

Quotes about Teaching and Learning

Many famous teachers have tried to discuss how teaching is not the superficial action it looks like with one teacher standing in front of a classroom filled with students. It is not so much a superficial process, as it is a deeper, more thoughtful and harder to measure, process.

1. ‘Education is not the filling of a pot but the lighting of a fire.’ –W.B. Yeats

2. “Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition.’ –Jacques Barzun

3. ‘A teacher is one who makes himself progressively unnecessary.’ –Thomas Carruthers

4. ‘I am not a teacher, but an awakener.’ –Robert Frost

5. ‘I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.’ –Albert Einstein

6. ‘Teaching is the highest form of understanding.’ –Aristotle

7. ‘When one teaches, two learn.’ –Robert Heinlein

8. ‘A teacher affects eternity: he can never tell where his influence stops.’ –Henry Adams

9. ‘I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.’ –Socrates

10. ‘Those who know, do. Those that understand, teach.’ –Aristotle

50 of the best Quotes about Teaching

Help Me Learn

In America, by law, students show up in schools sometime around their 6th birthday. This does not make them want to learn. What makes them want to learn is they are naturally curious. We all are. The reason why students want a teacher’s help is that they want to be seen for what they are doing, what they are thinking and what they are learning. Students are selfish in the best and most vital way, they care about what they are learning. Teachers can help with that learning, but they have to help students develop the ability to document and show others what they have learned.

Assessing Learning

Becoming a student is the curious pathway of learning something and translating that into an authentic pathway called living. In order to be an instructional leader of learning, we need to accurately assess our students well. From an assessment perspective, this means improving the accuracy of our assessments. We need more accurate data about what students are learning and use that data to inform our instruction in a more timely way. And there is a way to do this, through performance assessments.

Performance Assessments

Performance assessments are things like standing up in front of class to deliver a speech, working in groups of four, making music together, writing an editorial, and making maps of everything. An example of using a performance assessment is when a teacher assesses a student’s reading level, they can see where instruction is needed. More importantly, if they assess over time, on a regular basis, they can see where instruction has failed to move the child forward, and where re-teaching, perhaps in another way, the same concepts might be better learned by the student. The teacher can ask herself, “what if I do this and chart every student’s progress?” This would be the center of instructional leadership: The ability to lead student learning well, for every student. Let’s build school accountability around this. Teachers should lead this conversation and schools will get better.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

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