Support student growth with trajectory-based performance tasks

This is the first in a series of posts by Christina Schneider and Robert Johnson about building trajectory-based performance tasks. Stay tuned for follow-up posts as well as a webinar on this topic.

Support Student Growth with Trajectory-Based Performance Tasks  - TLG-IMG-09032019At the beginning of this decade, Common Core ushered in a new era of more rigorous academic standards for English language arts and math. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) soon followed. The goals in both cases were important: prepare students for a more competitive global economy by raising the expectations of what they should know and be able to do by the time they leave high school.

But what does it actually look like when students are proficient in these standards? And how do you help them get there?

Proficiency and the gap between instruction and assessment

A student is proficient when they have demonstrated sufficient mastery of a state’s academic content standards, measured in some subjects by the end-of-year summative assessment. Definitions of proficiency can differ by state, but there’s one commonality: proficiency means that while not all content has to be mastered by a student, particular sets of content at particular levels of difficulty, integrated with related standards, must be.

Performance tasks are assignments or assessments that ask students to apply learning to create authentic work in a new context. This allows them to show what they know. Performance tasks can help bridge the gap between instruction and summative assessment. But as Gregory Cizek argues in “The widening gulf between large-scale and classroom assessment,” there is a growing rift between assignments teachers can develop for the classroom and what large scale assessment specialists have the time and resources to develop.

Performance tasks are assignments or assessments that ask students to apply learning to create authentic work in a new context.”

“Here’s the big problem,” he explains. “If it takes full-time, highly specialized expertise to generate a handful of standards-aligned items and tasks (with modest success), what prayer does a classroom teacher have of regularly producing them for routine classroom assessments?”

Meanwhile, students can suffer. If they don’t have access to high-quality performance tasks during classroom instruction and assessment cycles, they can miss important opportunities to integrate their learning in complex but relevant ways that help grow their skills toward proficiency.

We want to bridge this gap. Over the course of the next few weeks, it will be our goal to offer some of that much-needed support through a series of blog posts. We will also host a free webinar in October. Let’s start with some research on the importance of performance tasks and by introducing the concept of trajectory-based performance tasks.

Why performance tasks matter

Quality performance tasks that grow in sophistication over the course of a school year can be a tool to support student growth to proficiency. Tasks that elicit authentic work or processes often require that students integrate knowledge, skills, and abilities across standards. They also support students engaging in more complex levels of thinking and learning and—most importantly—remembering what they’ve learned.

For example, researchers have found that when students generate written responses, they’re better able to retain information. Often, writing supports student learning more than studying or taking a multiple-choice test alone. This evidence suggests that such tasks help students process and synthesize information and skills, supporting the transfer of what was learned to new contexts.

Another study comparing math and writing assignments in grades 3, 6, and 8 showed that when teachers consistently provided students with more complex tasks—for example, those that required writing, connected content to scenarios outside of school, and were written at higher levels of cognitive complexity—students made greater gains on the year-end assessments than peers who didn’t have such opportunities. Similar findings with university exams have also been observed.

…trajectory-based performance tasks are sets of related tasks designed to increase in sophistication and difficulty over time.”

Making performance tasks trajectory based

Tweet: Support Student Growth with Trajectory-Based Performance Tasks #edchat #education #teachersThinking about how to use performance tasks cohesively to support growth led us to the idea of trajectory-based performance tasks. We’ll dig into those more in the coming weeks. But for now, a quick definition: trajectory-based performance tasks are sets of related tasks designed to increase in sophistication and difficulty over time.

These types of tasks are created by teachers based on purposeful choices and interpretations of what growth over time means. Teachers carefully describe how content difficulty, cognitive complexity, and context should increase as students move deeper into their course over the year. Teachers design these tasks to understand where students are in their reasoning skills in a content area and to help students grow in important, complex areas of the standards.

In our next blog post, coming soon, we’ll dig into how to go about creating trajectory-based performance tasks for your students.

Robert Johnson, a professor in educational research and measurement at the University of South Carolina, coauthored this post. His research related to assessment and evaluation has been published in journals including Applied Measurement in Education, Assessing Writing, and Teaching and Teacher Education. He holds a PhD in educational research, measurement, and evaluation from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro.

Drs. Schneider and Johnson coauthored Using Formative Assessment to Support Student Learning Objectives.

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