Susan Brookhart Author Interview
A recent interview of Dr. Susan M. Brookhart, author of Performance Assessment: Showing What Students Know and Can Do, provides insight into her passion and expertise in education. After many years as an elementary and middle school teacher, she transitioned to full-time faculty member at Duquesne University and most recently as Professor and Chair of the Department of Educational Foundations and Leadership. She is also an independent educational consultant and speaker.
Knowing her classroom experience, it’s easy to see why she writes with the voice of a teacher, and with understanding of what teachers need to succeed. She has authored or co-authored 16 books and more than 60 articles and book chapters on teacher professional development, classroom assessment, and evaluation. She currently serves as a Research and Professional Development Consultant in the Center for Advancing the Study of Teaching and Learning in the School of Education at Duquesne.
LSI: Will you provide a short definition of performance assessment as you define it in your new book?
SB: Performance assessment is assessment of a student performing a process or making a product. That task is then evaluated by observation and judgment. Most performance assessments have two parts: a task and the rubric you use to evaluate the work.
LSI: Will you expound on the concept of learning by doing?
SB: When students have to know a concept at a deep enough level to apply it, as opposed to simply reciting back the sum of two plus two or the capital of a state, they are more involved with their learning and most students enjoy that more. Performance assessment doesn’t talk about how to teach that way, but how to assess that learning. If you want to know how students are learning, the assessment needs to match what you want the students to learn. That may involve learning by doing, along with other techniques.
LSI: How is performance assessment different from formative assessment and summative assessment?
SB: That’s a good question. Performance assessment can be used for either. Formative assessment would be giving a student something for practice, such as writing a paragraph or shooting hoops in gym class. When a teacher evaluates what the student has actually learned, such as giving a grade, that is summative. You have to know which one is best to use in a given situation.
LSI: How well does performance assessment mesh with Common Core State Standards, college and career readiness standards, and anchor standards?
SB: Very well, because one of the hallmarks of all of the standards is that they are calling for students to be able to not just have static knowledge, but to be able to do something with it. There are math standards where students need to be able to do certain math thinking, not just reciting an answer. In reading or language arts, students are asked to do things like compare two texts or figure out the author’s purpose for saying something in a text. These all require higher-order thinking. The next-generation standards are pushing for application and use of knowledge and skills.
LSI: How prevalent is the attention to performance assessment in teacher preparation programs across the country?
SB: I would say varied. I know some people who teach performance assessment very well, and I also know in some situations performance assessment is not well handled in teacher preparation. During my speaking engagements, I’ve met teachers who clearly have used that method of assessment; others use tests all the time. They don’t have anything else in their repertoire. But that’s not their fault. You can’t use what you’ve not been exposed to.
LSI: Are there any curriculum areas in which performance assessment is more difficult than others, or is that simply a question of effective planning and instruction?
SB: I would like to say a matter of planning and instruction, but there are some subjects where it’s obvious to use performance assessment, like physical education, music, and art. People wouldn’t question that performance assessment is required. But it’s not as common in the more traditional academic subjects. People are simply used to using tests more in certain subjects.
LSI: Many readers enjoy the story you share at the beginning of your book about your home economics class in seventh grade. You used that as a perfect example of performance assessment. You said performance assessment is allowing a student to show what they’ve learned by doing. Do you believe all children will enjoy hands-on learning as much as you did in your home economics class? Or do some students feel intimidated by performance assessment, sort of like the dread of public speaking?
SB: There are students who actually prefer tests because it’s quicker and easier. I have a daughter who did well on testing and she preferred that to, say, working on a report for weeks. So you will have some kids who like tests better. I would suggests that teachers use varied kinds of assessments because sometimes you just need to know the sum of two plus four and sometimes you need to know what students can do with that knowledge. And most standards call for both. It’s important to keep in mind you can’t have kids doing just to be doing. They’re smart enough to catch on to that, and they won’t like it. Learning by doing has to be creative and make sense for what is being taught.
LSI: You say in your book, “The learning is the important thing, not the assessing. The assessing is a tool to help with the learning.” Is that important to stress? Do you find that sometimes educators get wrapped up in trying to get the assessment just right and forget it’s a tool?
SB: Actually with teachers, I find the opposite. Teachers are used to planning what the students will do each day, but some feel lost on the assessment part.
LSI: Some of the more progressive private schools in the U.S. are teaching through performance assessment, specifically the more complex examples. But the classrooms are smaller in these schools and there are usually more experienced teachers. How difficult would it be for a new teacher in a public school with 30 students in her class to come up with creative ways to engage and assess her students? Can teaching communities help in these situations?
SB: Well, those are two different topics. With new teachers, everything they are preparing is new. It would be naive for us to ignore that it’s just more difficult to be a first-year teacher. An experienced teacher already has a toolkit to pull from.
If you’re talking about classroom size, there are plenty of things that you can get kids to do in a class of 30. But you have to think about the management. I have a chapter in the book about management. None of the problems you could run into would make it unmanageable, and it’s certainly not a reason not to do performance assessment.
LSI: What is the prevalence and impact in low-performing, low-SES (supplemental educational services) schools versus small, suburban high-SES schools?
SB: It is certainly true that well-resourced schools have what they need to do some things more easily. However, there are lots of performance assessments that you can do with no more resources than a piece of paper and a pencil, or a gym mat. There is no reason socioeconomic status should keep anybody from doing performance assessment. For example: You can have two traditional classrooms, each with 30 kids sitting at desks taking tests. In one class, students are given a typical math test with multiple choice. In the second classroom, kids are asked to explain how they got their answers using at least two methods: pictures, numbers, or words. The second classroom of students will learn more problem-solving, quantitative reasoning, and mathematical communication skills. But the resources were exactly the same. Anybody can do performance assessment. It’s a matter of designing it well. Of course, there will be resource issues. But people can’t use resources as an excuse. It’s important to look at what you can do with the resources you have that will help students do more.
LSI: Your writing style is conversational and engaging. Your examples are clear and easy to understand. This subject could have easily been wrapped in a lot of jargon and heaviness. Did it take a lot of rewrites for you to make it so accessible, or is that your natural writing style?
SB: I actually have several writing styles. In my mind, it’s about voice (in the sense of what an English teacher would teach, not a music instructor). When I’m speaking to teachers, I try to speak as a teacher, so my writing naturally sounds the same. I also have written academic pieces that are written in a different voice. I can write that way, as well, because I like to write. Of course, you have to write what you know. I was a classroom teacher, then a college professor. Then I started to write these types of books later in my career. The fact that people resonate to the different voices I use is one of the things that makes me happy as a writer.
LSI: So your writing is very much reflective of your experience as a teacher—you’re not theorizing what it’s like to be in a classroom setting.
SB: Exactly. I wrote these things, and teachers say, “Oh, I can see this!” And it’s important to remember it’s more than just explaining things in simple language. You have to select stories and examples that reflect the concept you’re trying to get across. You have to know what sort of stories teachers recognize.
LSI: Tell us about your speaking engagement in June at Building Expertise 2015: Journey to Rigor in the Orlando area.
SB: I taught on questioning. We’re developed characteristics of effective questions and how they can be used in classrooms. We worked through classroom examples and talked about open and closed questions. Closed questions require mostly recall. Open questions are magic, because they offer a window into student thinking. If teachers ask more thoughtful questions, the students will learn more and teachers will learn more about their students. Any assessment tool you use, at its root, is a question, a problem that the kid has to solve. All of this ties in well with performance assessment.