Reimagining College Access: Performance Assessments From K-12 Through Higher Education

The Reimagining College Access (RCA) initiative is a national effort to advance the use of high-quality performance assessments completed by secondary students for higher education admissions, placement, and advising decisions. The approach is intended to increase college access by expanding and deepening information about secondary students’ preparedness for higher education while deepening high school education by focusing on meaningful and rigorous work. The initiative, led by the Learning Policy Institute in collaboration with EducationCounsel, brings together a diverse group of k–12 and higher education policy and practice leaders engaged in using authentic assessments of students’ competencies and mastery of skills needed for college, work, and life in the 21st century.

What Is a Performance Assessment?

Performance assessment is an approach to assessment that measures how well students demonstrate and apply their knowledge, understanding, skills, and abilities. Performance assessments typically require in-depth analyses and student-designed projects and inquiries or investigations. This approach to assessment typically yields a tangible product that serves as evidence of learning such as papers, presentations, design specifications, and other products, scored against specific criteria. An important strategy for making such assessments meaningful and useful is to embed them in the curriculum, as the International Baccalaureate Program and the newest Advanced Placement programs do, using performance assessments as part of classroom teaching that is engaging, meaningful, and focused on higher order thinking and sophisticated knowledge. Performance assessments can also take the form of Capstone projects, separate student-designed investigations that demonstrate cumulative learning, often at the end of a unit or school year, and portfolios, curated collections of student work used to evaluate student mastery of different subject areas. These are typically presented to a jury of educators and peers that hears the presentation, asks questions, and examined the student’s depth of knowledge and reflection, much like a dissertation defense. The goal of using performance assessment is to more closely emulate the real-world conditions of college and career settings, providing robust information about students’ achievements and potential for postsecondary success.

Since it was launched in 2017, RCA has been shaped by knowledge built through annual convenings, guidance from three task forces and an advisory group, a formal partnership with the Common App, and research. As a result, RCA leverages an existing technology platform for students to submit performance assessment information as part of their college applications in a recent pilot effort using the Common App. The initiative has also launched two collaboratives—the RCA New England Collaborative and the RCA Colorado Collaborative—to connect the k–12 and higher education sectors, and developed a set of research-based criteria to connect the k–12 and higher education sectors, and developed a set of research-based criteria to describe the system-level quality of performance assessments.

RCA continues to learn from the many educators and policy leaders involved in the initiative and is engaged in the following activities:

  • Creating tools and resources in partnership with other initiatives and organizations that are interested in using performance assessments in k–12 and higher education.
  • Supporting state and regional networks that connect k–12 and higher education and explore the use of performance assessment in both sectors.
  • Hosting national conversations that elevate key research and evidence, to build awareness and understanding of performance assessment and how it can be used to more meaningfully understand students’ performance, potential, and purpose in k–12 and as part of a holistic and equitable approach to admissions, placement or advising.


We are grateful to the Walton Family Foundation for its funding of this project. Core operating support for the Learning Policy Institute is provided by the Heising-Simons Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Sandler Foundation, and Mackenzie Scott and Dan Jewett.