Improving Performance Assessment with the Help of the Internet: The Experience of Maryland

 

Marcie Taylor-Thoma

I still remember the first time I administered the Maryland State Performance Assessment (MSPAP) in May, even though it was over 10 years ago. A nauseated feeling that usually coincides with the start of yet another school year attacked my senses. Why was I so nervous? As a middle school social studies teacher at that time, I was not completely clear about the intent of the assessment. What was performance assessment? What did it mean to my students and me? How could this assessment change how I taught and my students learned? Most teachers echoed the same sentiments and privately wondered what was wrong with the way they had been teaching. However, if it would improve students’ learning, I was at least willing to listen. I am sure my original involvement stemmed from a mixture of curiosity and cynicism. If there was a better way to teach and get students excited about learning social studies, I certainly wanted to know more about it.

There is now an overwhelming agreement that MSPAP has been a major factor in Maryland’s school improvement efforts and the impetus for instructional change. MSPAP models good instruction. It focuses on the best information we have on how children learn and are motivated to learn. We know that children learn best when they are actively involved in challenging content every day and not just in a “performance-activity simulation” once a month. A major component of the Maryland educational reform effort has been to provide support for teachers who want to promote more than a surface-only understanding of social studies.

The effects of performance assessment on teaching and learning have been hailed as effective tools for reform from assessment leaders across the nation. Khattri, Kane and Reeve reviewed the research available on the subject and concluded, “…performance assessments have had a significant impact on instruction. Teachers are using a wide array of instructional strategies modeled on the performance assessment that their states, districts, and schools have developed.”1 The very nature of the assessments encourages active learning, critical thinking skills, purposeful writing, collaboration with peers, and multidisciplinary understanding. However, an effective program must be supported by clearly defined content and performance standards.

In Maryland, when MSPAP was introduced, the original plea for assistance came from teachers who lacked the time and training to develop performance-based activities, and the time to score the activities with rubrics and then interpret the information gathered. Exemplars which were developed in each discipline were models of lessons that could be used in professional development. These exemplars can be found on the website, www.mdk12.org. Sample lessons modeled the strategies emphasized in MSPAP, such as critical analysis, refining and extending meaning for students, and the application of content knowledge in authentic contexts. Some of the tasks replicated a performance-assessment and others a performance-instruction lesson. Eventually, we developed a bank of performance assessments and publicly released some of these examples, including samples of student responses and scoring guides. These are also available on the website under Public Release Tasks.

For one week in May the state department of education assesses every 3rd, 5th and 8th grader in all content areas. Social studies tasks reflect the Maryland Learning Outcomes and Indicators in Geography, Economics, Political Systems, Peoples in the Nation and the World, and Skills and Processes. Throughout the year teachers use MSPAP language and strategies during instruction and classroom assessments in all disciplines. The implementation of MSPAP is now better understood by schools and teachers and has moved beyond the testing mentality to a broader effect of improved instruction. MSPAP also focuses teachers on the content and skills in social studies that some elementary teachers lacked due to a lack of pedagogical content knowledge.

Over the years, the objectives of MSPAP have included more widespread dissemination of information about assessment to parents and students, as well as professional development for teachers in the field of instructional strategies and the construction and evaluation of performance tasks. The Internet offers extraordinary opportunities for fulfilling these objectives.

The website www.mdk12.org provides summary statistics on how schools in Maryland perform, as well as comparisons between schools. It also offers instructional and staff development strategies in support of the effective teaching of social studies and other subjects. One challenge facing the statewide assessment of performance tasks is ensuring that teachers use the same criteria in grading students. For example, using a typical rubric, different teachers might disagree on the degree of perfection or imperfection of a student’s reply. The website assists teachers in developing common criteria for evaluation by showing how sample answers have been graded by experienced scorers (see boxes). Parents and students can also use the site to determine what is needed to attain high standards of performance.

For example, in preparation for a forthcoming statewide high school government assessment that will go into effect in 2001, sample open-ended questions ask students to discuss issues ranging from gun control and social security to the role of the United Nations (see boxes). This part of the site is interactive, so teachers can score sample answers and then compare their scores with those of the majority of state scorers using a rubric.

The speed, convenience and interactive potential of the Internet mean that it is destined to play a vital role in the future preparation of teachers and students for performance assessments. It can assist more consistent grading by helping teachers align their criteria for grading the same question. It also enables teachers to exchange teaching tips and successful instructional strategies.

 

Note

1. N. Khattri, M. Kane and A. Reeve, “How Performance Assessments Affect Teaching and Learning” Educational Leadership (1995), 80.

 

Marcie Taylor-Thoma is the state specialist in social studies at the Maryland Department of Education, Baltimore.

 ©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.