Oct 13 2020

Using Performance Assessments to Support Student Learning

How District Initiatives Can Make a Difference
Two students standing by presentation board

Educators need ways to assess student learning that can also support students’ higher-order thinking skills, help improve teachers’ instructional practices, and ultimately allow students to demonstrate college and career readiness through a culminating assessment—such as a graduate capstone or senior portfolio defense.

In California, some of these educators participate in the California Performance Assessment Collaborative (CPAC), a network that supports the implementation of high-quality performance assessments. Performance assessments are part of a robust assessment system. They require students to show what they know, rather than select answers from predetermined options on a multiple-choice test. Examples of performance assessments include composing a few sentences in an open-ended short response, developing a thorough analysis in an essay, conducting a laboratory investigation, curating a portfolio of student work, and completing an original research paper.

While these districts each have a unique approach, all are committed to assessing student learning in a meaningful way that is aligned to the outcomes they hope all students will achieve by graduation.

A substantial body of evidence shows performance assessments are a strategy to improve educational outcomes, but relatively little research examines the key conditions needed to support the implementation of high-quality performance assessments at the district, school, and classroom levels. This study builds on the work of CPAC to document performance assessment initiatives in three districts:

  • Los Angeles Unified School District (Los Angeles Unified), which supports a model wherein a growing number of 12th-grade students in Linked Learning pathways (a program of study that integrates a college preparatory curriculum with career and technical education and student supports) defend a portfolio of their work.
  • Oakland Unified School District (Oakland Unified), which encourages 12th-grade students to complete and present a graduate capstone (an original research project) prior to graduation.
  • Pasadena Unified School District (Pasadena Unified), which requires all 12th-grade students to defend a portfolio of their work in order to graduate.

While these districts each have a unique approach, all are committed to assessing student learning in a meaningful way that is aligned to the outcomes they hope all students will achieve by graduation. A series of district-level case studies accompanies this cross-cutting report.

Key Conditions

Districts and schools can build systems and structures for developing and implementing performance assessment initiatives across multiple sites. This study examined how districts approached this work using educator interviews, teacher and student focus groups, observations of student presentations, and district administrative data and documents. The report shows that district performance assessment initiatives can contribute to improving teachers’ instructional practices and students’ learning outcomes, provided that strong supports are in place for participating students and teachers policies and practices related to performance assessments.

Although each district took a different approach, the common link across all three was some sort of formal commitment to legitimize the work. Their policies not only outlined high-level expectations related to the performance assessment initiative, but also established a vision for why this new approach is valuable. They also signaled the importance of the initiative to educators within the districts, who faced many competing priorities. For example, Pasadena Unified and Oakland Unified have board-approved graduation requirements for students to assemble and present a portfolio of their work (in Pasadena) or complete a research project (in Oakland). By contrast, Los Angeles Unified has a structured onboarding process for new Linked Learning pathways, including a commitment that all 12th-grade students will assemble and present a portfolio of work.

Key Starting Conditions

Three key starting conditions were important when introducing performance assessments within the districts:

  • Technical assistance: Technical assistance, including professional learning supports, played an important role in all three districts. For example, each district worked closely with technical assistance providers to develop trainings, shared rubrics, and related resources.
  • Opportunities to observe performance assessments in action: Opportunities to observe performance assessments also played an important role across the districts, in terms of educating stakeholders, garnering buy-in, and ultimately seeking shared ownership of the work.
  • Strategies to develop and scale performance assessments: Districts employed strategies with a clear vision for how students should experience the process and then evolved organically in response to schools’ needs.

Supportive State and Local Policy and Practice Environment

At both the state and local levels, a supportive policy and practice environment played an important role. This included the focus on deeper learning competencies in the Common Core State Standards and the Smarter Balanced Assessments and the shift away from past high-stakes assessments with the suspension of the California High School Exit Exam. It also included efforts to align education with the changing nature of the workforce and society through the funding of career and technical education initiatives, such as California Pathway Academies and the California Career Pathways Trust, as well as Linked Learning pilots at the state and local levels. These policy changes created opportunities in all three districts to focus on deeper learning competencies and assess student learning in an innovative way.

High-Quality Professional Learning Opportunities

In all three districts, central office staff carefully planned for and organized professional learning opportunities focused on the district performance assessment initiatives. Calibration of expectations for student work and scoring practices among teachers played a central role in these sessions. In many cases, these sessions were opt-in by nature. In Los Angeles Unified and Oakland Unified, educators could participate in a community of practice by attending a multipart sequence of sessions throughout the school year.

Strong Teacher Leadership, Support, and Recognition

Across the three districts, we observed teachers and other staff taking on a variety of responsibilities to support the implementation of district performance assessment initiatives. For example, teachers scheduled student defense presentations, recruited judges for the presentations, and developed systems and supports for students. This teacher leadership was a vital source of support for school-level implementation. In many cases, teachers received extra planning time and compensation to acknowledge their efforts. It is important to note, though, that additional planning time, more compensation for extra hours worked, and additional staff positions to share in the work still emerged as ongoing needs in all three districts. The extent to which these added supports were available varied across sites, depending on the size and organizational structure of the school as well as the extent of support from school administrators.

Flexibility for Instructional Leaders to Determine Student Supports

Across all three districts, educators expressed the importance of allowing instructional leaders at each school—including principals, coaches, and lead teachers—to adapt the implementation of the performance assessment process to the needs of their students and community. Although teachers are often the driving force behind successful implementation of district performance assessment initiatives, it is school administrators who have decision-making power about how to allocate resources (including time and money) to support this work at the site level. At the same time, central office staff played a key role in supporting school-level implementation and ensuring equitable access to the performance assessment process for all student groups.

Outcomes for Students and Teachers

The study found that students experienced expanded opportunities to demonstrate deeper learning competencies—including improved communication and presentation skills; greater confidence in college and career preparation; and growth in social-emotional skills such as perseverance, creative problem-solving, and a growth mindset. It also found that teachers reported an increased focus on alignment among curriculum, instruction, and assessment across subjects and grade levels; continuous reflection on and improvement of their instructional practice; more positive relationships with their students; and closer collaboration with their colleagues.


Using Performance Assessments to Support Student Learning: How District Initiatives Can Make a Difference by Anna Maier, Julie Adams, Dion Burns, Maya Kaul, Marisa Saunders, and Charlie Thompson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

This research was supported by the Stuart Foundation. Core operating support for the Learning Policy Institute is provided by the Heising-Simons Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Sandler Foundation, and William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. We are grateful to them for their generous support. The ideas voiced here are those of the authors and not those of our funders.

Photo courtesy of Young Whan Choi/OUSD