The Uses and Limits of Performance Assessment

By Eisner, Elliot W. | Phi Delta Kappan, May 1999 | Go to article overview
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The Uses and Limits of Performance Assessment


Eisner, Elliot W., Phi Delta Kappan


In his introduction, Mr. Eisner, who served as guest editor of this special section, puts performance assessment into a broad educational and social context.

PERFORMANCE assessment is one of the "hot topics" on the agenda of education reform and for good reason. Performance assessment is a closer measure of our children's ability to achieve the aspirations we hold for them than are conventional forms of standardized testing. Indeed, our educational aspirations have been influenced by the fact that our children will inhabit a world requiring far more complex and subtle forms of thinking than children needed three or four decades ago. For example, our children will need to know how to frame problems for themselves, how to formulate plans to address them, how to assess multiple outcomes, how to consider relationships, how to deal with ambiguity, and how to shift purposes in light of new information.

These modes of thought will be critical in a society in which citizens are apt to change vocations several times during the course of a worklife,1 in which mobility has increased and new forms of adaptability are required, and in which choosing a course of action requires the consideration of diverse and sometimes conflicting information. No longer will most jobs, particularly those that are the most desirable, require the use of routine skills and rote memory.2 As Edward Haertel informs us in his article in this special section, these changing expectations for the outcomes of education reflect a nonbehaviorist view of human nature. When learning was conceived of as the acquisition and aggregation of reinforced units of information, "practice makes perfect" could serve as a guiding principle for teaching. The kind of thinking that students are now being encouraged to engage in requires much more than what Edward Thorndike, the father of American psychological connectionism, dreamed of. Context matters, judgment counts, and the opportunity to act in order to try out one's speculations is of critical importance.

The demise of behaviorism and the emergence of constructivism in our view of human nature are not the only sources of our changing conception of children and education. We have come to realize that meaning matters and that it is not something that can be imparted from teacher to student. In a sense, all teachers can do is to "make noises in the environment." By this I mean that we have in education no main line into the brains of our students. We are shapers of the environment, stimulators, motivators, guides, consultants, resources. But in the end, what children make of what we provide is a function of what they construe from what we offer.3 Meanings are not given, they are made. And we are interested in enabling students to make their activities in school meaningful, not merely because of the grades they receive but, more important, because of the satisfactions and insights their efforts make possible.

We have also come to realize that the kinds of meanings that our students can make are related to the forms of representation they can employ themselves or can decode when others have used them.4 Each of the forms of representation that exist in our culture visual forms in art, auditory forms in music, quantitative forms in mathematics, propositional forms in science, choreographic forms in dance, poetic forms in language are vehicles through which meaning is conceptualized and expressed. A life driven by the pursuit of meaning is enriched when the meanings sought and secured are multiple.

In addition to these considerations, we have also begun to recognize that the aim of schooling is not merely to enable our children to do well in school. The stakes are considerably higher. What we are after is to enable our children to do well in life outside of school; the scores generated by the kinds of tests we have been using are proxies, but, alas, we have found that as proxies they are most useful for making inferences about the scores students are likely to receive on other tests.

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