Thinking Outside the Test

Solve the challenge of performance assessment with "real-world" steps and tools


One puzzle in teaching the arts is how to assess student learning well. You want to be respectful of student artists and their development, but you also have a responsibility to provide assessment for the educational system. The challenge is finding an assessment that balances what is best for the student artist while meeting accountability requirements. 

Tests are not bad, (seriously). But testing does not necessarily tell us all we need to know, and should know, about student learning in the arts. The arts are multi-faceted and paper-and-pencil testing is rarely used to assess “real-world” art work. So we need the right tools to understand what our students are learning in the arts. 

One answer lies in performance assessment. Performance assessment is often referred to as authentic or alternative assessment. In authentic assessment, student work is examined much like “real-world” work is assessed. Strategies that are found in the “real world” such as performances, critiques, and personal reflection are put to work in authentic assessment. 

Understanding Performance Assessments 

Performance assessment requires students to perform a task that results in a product (such as a sculpture or a composition) or a performance (such as a concert or a dance recital). Performance assessment tasks often take more time than traditional assessments. They are generally multi-step processes, requiring preparation and revision, and are completed with critique or reflection. There is often not one right answer to be circled on a page—indeed, the outcome may be complex and layered. 

Grant Wiggins, author of Educative Assessment and one of the minds behind the influential Understanding by Design, identifies the following criteria for authentic performance assessment:

  • Produce “real-world” work. An authentic performance assessment is much like one found in a real-world setting. Performances can be assessment tasks, whether they are live concerts or mp3 recordings. Visual artwork presented in a school art gallery (or even in the hall outside your classroom) is another representation of “real-world” work.
  • Solve a problem. Students need to identify their own solutions to problems. And, typically, the problems are complex. Students may want to draw on knowledge and skill from other areas and integrate them into the solution.
  • Do the work. Rather than correctly filling in test bubbles to demonstrate learning, students integrate their newly acquired knowledge and skills by doing the work—dance, sculpt, improvise, harmonize.
  • Practice makes progress. Authentic performance assessment allows students to practice as well as receive feedback and have the opportunity to revise their work. In other words, performance assessment looks a lot like time in rehearsal or the studio. Authentic assessments utilize the circular loop of performance, feedback, and revision, ideally giving students the opportunity to develop their art work.

The Student and Self-Assessment 

There are opportunities for both formative and summative assessment. Frequently, students document the process of creating the art work as well as creating a product or performance. Documenting the process can take on many forms. Students might journal about the rehearsal process in preparation for the production of a play, or they might collect and describe the sketches made in preparation for a painting. Self-assessments embedded in the process allow students to contribute to their own assessment through self-reflective writing and discussion. These elements give students greater participation in their own learning. 

The arts are taught with students doing—they sing, they clap, they experiment with rhythm, they blend color, they improvise a frog's jump. Assessments need to reflect instruction. Engaged and active instruction is best assessed by engaged and active assessment.



Patti Saraniero
Original Writer


Palmer Wolf, D.and Pistone, N. (1991). Taking Full Measure: Rethinking Assessment Through the Arts. The College Board.

Wiggins, G. (1998). Educative Assessment: Designing Assessments to Inform and Improve Student Performance. Jossey-Bass.

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