Linn, Baker, and Dunbar, 1991; National Center for Education Statistics, 1996; U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, 1992).
The quest for alternatives to traditional assessment modes has led many states to pursue approaches that include the use of more open-ended tasks that call upon students to apply their knowledge and skills to create a product or solve a problem. Performance assessment represents one such effort to address some of the limitations of traditional assessments. Performance assessment, an enduring concept (e.g., Lindquist, 1951) that attracted renewed attention during the 1990s, requires students to perform more “authentic” tasks that involve the application of combined knowledge and skills in the context of an actual project. Even with such alternative formats, however, there has been a constant gravitation toward familiar methods of interpreting student performance. For example, Baxter and Glaser (1998) analyzed a range of current performance assessments in science and often found mismatches between the intentions of the developers and what the tasks and associated scoring rubrics actually measured. Particularly distressing was the observation that some performance tasks did not engage students in the complex thinking processes intended.
As a result of these limitations, the growing interest in performance assessment was followed by a recognition that it is not the hoped-for panacea, especially in light of the costs, feasibility, and psychometric concerns associated with the use of such measures (Mehrens, 1998; National Center for Education Statistics, 1996). The cumulative work on performance assessment serves as a reminder that the key question is whether an assessment, whatever its format, is founded on a solid model of learning and whether it will provide teachers and students with information about what students know that can be used for meaningful instructional guidance.
Simply put, steps have been taken to improve assessment, but a significant leap forward needs to occur to equip students, parents, teachers, and policy makers with information that can help them make appropriate decisions about teaching practices and educational policies that will assist learning. Fortunately, the elements of change that could produce such an advance are already present within the cognitive and measurement sciences.
Several decades of research in the cognitive sciences has advanced the knowledge base about how children develop understanding, how people reason and build structures of knowledge, which thinking processes are associated with competent performance, and how knowledge is shaped by social context. These findings, presented in Chapter 3, suggest directions for revamping assessment to provide better information about students’ levels