Many of the things that physical educators do during an instructional unit can be easily turned into performance-based assessments. By making a few modifications, writing out criteria for the performance, and gradually including performance-based assessments throughout a unit, a teacher can begin to transform current assessment practices into performance-based assessments.
Performance-based assessments provide several instructional advantages in physical education and can greatly increase the effectiveness of instruction and evaluation systems. This section considers some advantages of using performance-based assessments.
Performance-based assessments allow teachers to assess areas of learning that traditional assessments do not address. Many traditional assessments do not directly measure progress toward the teacher’s final learning objectives. For example, at the secondary level, a physical educator’s goal is usually to teach a student how to play a game or do an activity. However, while skill tests may evaluate performance of discrete skills in a fairly closed (unchanging) environment, they do not evaluate a student’s ability to use these skills and “put it all together” during game play. Additionally, game play, involves making decisions about which skill to use and thus requires students to evaluate a complex environment. Skill tests are merely an approximation of what a student must be able to do. Although they do represent a first step in learning, obtaining high scores on a skill test is usually not the teacher’s ultimate goal for the unit.
Direct observation of students performing in a real-world setting provides a powerful way to measure both their knowledge and their ability to apply it. Traditional assessments are designed to measure students’ learning indirectly. For example, when students take a test about tennis rules, the teacher assumes that the test measures the degree to which a student knows the rules, and if the questions are valid then this is a reasonable assumption. However, a student might know the rules of tennis and demonstrate that knowledge on a written test yet be unable to apply them during a game. Skill tests and written tests give teachers a useful way to sample students’ learning during instruction, but actual assessment of game play allows teachers to see whether students can combine the pieces into a meaningful entity.
Thus performance-based assessments allow teachers to access information not available through traditional testing. Assessments must measure how well students meet the teacher’s goals or targets for the unit. When a teacher’s goals include game play or some type of student performance, then performance-based assessments provide an excellent way to determine whether students have achieved those goals.
Put simply, instructional alignment means that teachers test what they teach. Cohen’s research (1987) revealed the power of instructional alignment strategies. Teachers in his study demonstrated a significant difference in student learning when their assessments matched student learning. When applying instructional alignment principles, teachers decide on a target, then test what they teach. This approach may seem logical, but the fact is that not all teachers use it. Some teachers use written tests to evaluate learning for activity units. Too often, the material covered by a test comes from a one- or two-page handout on the history or rules of a game or sport, which means that the test ignores all the skill and game-play instruction involved in the unit. In performance-based assessment, in contrast, the assessment can be the instructional task. Students know exactly what is expected of them and are given multiple opportunities to meet preannounced teacher expectations and criteria. Thus instruction and assessment work together in performance-based assessments, which leads to strong instructional alignment and enhances students’ learning.
Since performance-based assessments usually involve real-world tasks, students tend to find them more engaging and challenging. Rather than studying just enough to get a good grade on a test, students spend many hours engaged in their projects and often explore and use sources beyond the teacher and textbook. In addition, when an assessment simulates what a person in the field might do, students have several role models to emulate (e.g., announcing a game like Harry Caray, doing basketball analysis like Pat Summitt, or dancing like Michael Flatley or Julianne Hough). When an assessment results in a product or performance, students accomplish something they can be proud of.
Because they have a formative component, performance-based assessments provide high-quality feedback to students throughout the assessment. Since students have access to the rubric that is used to judge the final product, they can self-assess and peer-assess as they move through the assessment and receive additional feedback. The overall purpose of assessment should be to enhance learning, and the primary reason to assess should be to give feedback to students about their progress. The second reason for doing assessments is to provide information to the teacher that can be used to shape instruction. Thus, instead of doing assessment at the end of the unit, teachers can enhance students’ learning by integrating assessment throughout the instructional process.
These days, physical education is often squeezed into an instructional curriculum loaded with classes that students were not required to take 10 years ago. As a result, physical education teachers must make every minute count. Because performance-based assessments are linked with instruction, the two can be accomplished simultaneously, thus increasing instructional efficiency. Game play provides opportunities for teachers to assess students’ skill, use of strategy, knowledge of rules, and affective-domain attributes. Additionally, physical education teachers can often work with other teachers to do assessments that display competence in multiple areas. For example, written assessments could be used to evaluate learning in both English and physical education, and fitness assessments could also be used to measure biology content knowledge. Assessments involving other subject areas can be completed outside the gym, which maximizes time available for activity.
Performance-based assessments can empower students by giving them freedom to make choices, within parameters set by teachers, about the direction that their learning should take. Giving students this kind of ownership of their learning process can be a powerful motivator. In addition, because students understand what their learning should look like, students are more likely to experience success with performance-based assessments. Not only do the lessons have a more lasting effect—performance-based assessments require students to do something, which makes them more likely to retain the knowledge they use—but also may lead students to other projects and activities. Indeed, whether they involve writing or the use of psychomotor skills, performance-based assessments should encourage students to go outside the confines of the class for additional learning. As a result, an assessment may not be the end or culmination of learning so much as it is the beginning of engagement with a newfound area of interest.
Higher-order thinking skills, which are important for success as an adult, must be nurtured and developed throughout a student’s school career. Performance-based assessments prompt students to use higher-order thinking skills such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. The more opportunities students are given to practice these skills, the more proficient they become at using them. For example, a teacher might call on students to use higher-order thinking skills in physical education by giving them a scouting assignment in which they analyze the skills and strategies of future opponents in a badminton tournament. Another option would be to have students create a dance for an upcoming performance or design a play for use in an upcoming game.
Some educators see assessment in a purely evaluative light: students have one chance to prove that they have learned the required material. In contrast, because of its formative focus, performance-based assessments give students multiple chances to succeed. Indeed, in life outside the classroom, people often have multiple chances to demonstrate competence without penalty. Did you pass your lifesaving exam the first time you took it? If you didn’t, that setback did not mean that you could never become a lifeguard. It just meant that more work was necessary before you met the criteria. In much the same way, performance-based assessments allow students multiple opportunities to meet the criteria or standard of excellence set by the teacher.
When game-play assessments are used during a tournament, the grade should be determined not by averaging a student’s early performance with that from later games but by using results from his or her best performance. Errors made during a game in the early stages of learning should not be held against the student because improvement with experience is the expectation. When dancers make errors while performing for their video recording, they can do another take. When a student’s written work misses the mark, he or she is allowed to rewrite. Educators who administer an assessment only once must recognize that in the world outside the classroom people often have multiple chances to demonstrate proficiency. Athletes compete in many contests, dancers put on many shows, and skaters perform in numerous competitions. Thus, giving students multiple opportunities to achieve success provides more of a real-world experience than a one-shot evaluation provides.
Because assessments are challenging and simulate real-world experiences, students find them interesting and engaging. Time on task in class tends to be high and students are willing to spend additional time outside of class to complete their projects. Afterward, when students consider their accomplishments, they have a strong sense of satisfaction and pride, since the product or performance provides a tangible, concrete demonstration of their achievement.