A Case for Performance-Based Assessment
A Case for Performance-Based Assessment
PUBLISHED: Monday, January 11, 2021 by Todd Stanley

It seems there is an objective multiple-choice test for everything. If you want to get into college, you often have to take the SAT/ACT. If you want to be a doctor or lawyer, you have to take the boards or pass the bar. Even if you want to drive, you must first take a pencil-to-paper test where you determine which of four letters is more attractive than the others. The interesting aspect about all of these is that in order to be successful in the field in which you took a test, it comes down to performance. You can score very high on the SAT or ACT, but in college you have to show up to the classes and perform in order to have success. As a doctor or lawyer, you may pass your boards or the bar, but the true merit of a successful doctor or lawyer is how well they perform in the field. Even by passing the written portion of your driver’s test, it does not necessarily correlate with how well you will perform once you get in the car and have to maneuver the vehicle on the road. With this logic, would we not be better off to have people take tests that evaluate performance rather than the multiple-choice version? Would this not be a better indicator of the success one might have once they actually get in the field and have to perform in the real world? 

School systems spend nearly the entire year evaluating the performance of students. How well do they participate in class? How often do they get their homework completed? Do they show a deep understanding of the material and concepts being taught? And yet at the end of the year, we have it all boil down to an objective multiple-choice test that the state has dictated must be given to all students. Since No Child Left Behind came out in 2001 and even with the introduction of the Every Student Succeeds Act, we have been pushing students to tell us what they have learned on pencil-to-paper tests with a lot of accountability tied to the results. School districts are evaluated based on these scores, principals are held accountable when their buildings are not performing well, and teachers feel the pressure for students to do well. Because of this, we have developed strategies for students to do better on these types of tests. One of those strategies involves modeling all assessments in the classroom after the state one so that students are familiar with both the format and the way the content is delivered. As a result, students are getting really good at filling in little bubbles. The problem is that they are losing those valuable performance-based abilities, many of which are 21st-century skills. 

The powers that be in education are starting to realize the value in performance-based assessment. Many states are employing the Common Core State Standards. These are learning objectives that many states are using to get students on the same page and ensuring we are producing 21st-century students who are ready to use these skills in a global workforce. Many of the CCSS have the term “real world” in the standard just to make sure students get the point of how important being able to apply these skills to the real world is. Many of these CCSS are also written in a way that lends to performance-based assessment. Take these examples of Common Core State Standards:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.7. Conduct short research projects to answer a question, drawing on several sources and refocusing the inquiry when appropriate.

CCSS.Math.Content.2.MD.D.10. Draw a picture graph and a bar graph to represent a data set with up to four categories. Solve simple put-together, take-apart, and compare problems using information presented in the bar graph.


How could you conduct a short research project without producing a performance-based assessment, whether it is a research paper or a presentation? Drawing picture and bar graphs is an example of performance in that students actually have to create something. The direction of education is taking us toward performance-based assessment. Wouldn’t you rather be on the rising tide of this movement than on the end of the crashing wave?

The reason for these changes is the realization that objective testing is not necessarily causing our students to have enduring understanding. Schools in Asia consistently score well on international academic tests and match this assessment practice by placing a heavy emphasis on rote memorization. The problem is that these very same students who are scoring so well retain the information for the least amount of time, meaning they cannot apply what they have supposedly learned (Robbins, 2006, p. 37). Is the goal that students know the information just long enough to score well on the test, or is the goal of education that students learn the content for life? If you think the goal is for students to gain an enduring understanding, performance-based assessment is the method that will best produce this:

An alternative method of evaluating students is “performance assessment,” which appraises students on items such as portfolios, projects, and writing samples. Students will be more prone to “deep approach” learning rather than superficial, temporary memorization of facts, and teachers will have the chance to spend semesters actually teaching rather than reviewing for an exam. (Robbins, 2006, p. 391)


What we should be teaching our students are lifelong skills they can use when needed. We should view this building of skills as creating a Swiss Army knife. Swiss Army knives have several different tools that can be utilized depending on the situation. If you need to unscrew something, pull out the screwdriver blade. If you need to open a bottle of pop, flip out the bottle opener. If you have to cut out a coupon, deploy the little pair of scissors. Even if you have a piece of corn stuck in your teeth, you can use the little toothpick attachment. You do not pull out the single large blade to try to accomplish all of these tasks. You would end up severely limited in what you could do and how well it could be done. Similarly in education, rather than teaching students one way to learn, or equipping them with only the one blade, we should be teaching them various ways to learn so that they can use the appropriate tool for the appropriate task. Performance-based assessment gives students those tools to develop their Swiss Army knife. The question is, what tools should students have in their Swiss Army knife?

The most compelling case for performance-based assessment is that it utilizes real-world skills, 21st-century skills, that are valuable no matter what the student envisions their future to be. These are the skills students should be developing as their Swiss Army knife. This is why teaching students in multiple methods of performance-based assessment is very valuable. If you focus on a single one, it is almost as limiting as learning objective test taking only. You want your students’ Swiss Army knife to have multiple blades for multiple situations.

In the book 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times, by Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel (2012), they mentioned amongst the 21st-century skills that are valuable for any student to be able to do, eight specific ones that performance-based assessment can teach very effectively:

  • public speaking,
  • problem solving,
  • collaboration,
  • critical thinking,
  • information literacy,
  • creativity,
  • adaptability, and
  • self-direction (p. viii).

Any one of the above skills would be a boon for a student to possess. Imagine, however, that you could provide all eight of them for your students. Their Swiss Army knife would be loaded and attractive to employers seeking such innovative individuals. Performance-based assessment will allow a teacher to expose students to all of these skills and more. This is why using performance-based assessment in the classroom is such a wise choice for teachers. 


Robbins, A. (2006). The overachievers: the secret lives of driven kids. Hyperion. 

Trilling, B., & Fadel, C. (2009). 21st-century skills: Learning for life in our times. Jossey-Bass.

. This post is adapted from Performance-Based Assessment for 21st-Century Skills, by T. Stanley, 2014, Prufrock Press. Copyright 2014 by Prufrock Press. Adapted with permission.
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Todd Stanley is the author of more than 12 teacher education books, including Project-Based Learning for Gifted Students: A Handbook for the 21st-Century Classroom and Performance-Based Assessment for 21st-Century Skills. He was a classroom teacher for 18 years, teaching students as young as second graders and as old as high school seniors, and was a National Board Certified teacher. He helped create a gifted academy for grades 5–8, which employs inquiry-based learning, project-based learning, and performance-based assessment. He is currently gifted services coordinator for Pickerington Local School District, OH, where he lives with his wife, Nicki, and two daughters, Anna and Abby.