A Foundation's View on the Importance of Performance Assessment

Nick C. Donohue is the president and CEO of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.


ver the last year, I have witnessed a significant increase in interest, energy, and investment in student-centered learning, which is defined by:

  • more personalized learning experiences that meet learners where they are and in terms of who they are, not where or whom we wish they were;
  • competency-, mastery-, or proficiency-based approaches that demand firm foundations of learning before moving forward to other learning challenges;
  • anywhere, anytime learning that honors achievements made in a classroom, online, or in the real world; and
  • strong student agency, where learners have a real voice in collaboration with their teachers.

In a future world of diverse student-centered educational experiences guided by these principles, it is crucial to continually assess learning, which is why advocates of new approaches to learning must support advances in performance-based assessments and educational accountability. Quality approaches to accountability balance intrinsic motivators for adults and schools such as supporting professional judgment, autonomy, and growth, and extrinsic ones such as student outcomes on tests; failure comes when one dominates over the other. Of course, it is not wise to simply ask educators to affirm their own excellence, but an external measure that makes no sense to practitioners will be rejected as not relevant. If we want to hold teachers and students accountable, then we need to make the evidence on which they are judged more legitimate. The good news is that ESSA includes provisions for furthering these more rational accountability approaches, largely because states such as New Hampshire and others are demonstrating that systems that include locally developed performance assessments are viable, reliable, and valid.

In addition, those of us clamoring for a revolution in learning must work to change the way we treat educators and support more rational approaches to teacher effectiveness. We need to be allies in supporting educators just as we aspire to support learners. In a student-centered world, we need to value how well educators know their students. Moving forward, teachers need training and professional development to execute strong formative assessments rooted in developmental theory. Teachers will need to be given time and support to collaborate – not just communicate – with parents and other agents of learning. Advocates for a big change in learning should not only care about better supports for teachers but listen to teachers as they develop and implement important ideas about the future of teaching and learning.