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December 1, 1996
Vol. 54
No. 4

Performance-Based Education in Aurora

A Colorado school system tackles performance based education, with wide community support. Early results show impressive gains in student achievement.

A group of 4th graders are standing on chairs, their hands shaped into telescopes, peering at bits of colored construction paper arranged on a table. Later, these same youngsters respond to a guest's Lone Star quilt with an analysis of its geometric shapes and color combinations. In this art project, which combines math and art in the task of designing a quilt square, success comes from the ability to plan, to consider alternatives, and to problem solve, rather than solely from artistic talent.
Kathy Hoerlein, a 4th grade teacher at Vassar Elementary School in Aurora, Colorado, started her authentic assessment with an activity she had seen before, but which she wanted to make into something more than just interesting. In perusing books such as Eight Hands Round a Patchwork Alphabet by Ann Paul, and admiring border designs from The Night Before Christmas by Tomie DePaola, Kathy had noticed the connection between quilting and the geometry her class was studying. She proceeded to design an interdisciplinary authentic assessment that requires complex thinking, engages students, and has potential lifelong learning benefits.
The task called for students to use their knowledge of primary, secondary, and neutral colors to select a color combination and then to create a quilt design. They cut geometric shapes from two inch squares of construction paper, which they arranged on six inch squares. The rubric for the activity required effectively using resources to gather information for the math and art components of the project, integrating this information successfully, using color combinations according to specified criteria, and choosing geometric shapes to create a pleasing design.
The type of authentic task described here is becoming commonplace in the Aurora Public Schools as teachers ask students to demonstrate their performance systematically and regularly from kindergarten through 12th grade. Teachers are asking what we really want students to know, what it looks like when they are doing it, and how we will know when they are doing it well.

We Have a Mission

For the past six years, Aurora Public School District, the fifth largest in Colorado, has worked toward implementing an educational plan known as performance based education (PBE). This plan involves setting clear educational standards and having our students demonstrate that they have met these standards. In 1990, Aurora schools involved thousands of staff, parents, and community stakeholders in a strategic learning process and adopted a mission "to develop lifelong learners who value themselves, contribute to their community, and succeed in a changing world."
The school system adopted five learner outcomes that require students to be self directed learners, collaborative workers, complex thinkers, community contributors, and quality producers. These learner characteristics focus on the skills for successful learning both in and out of the classroom. Integral to our educational vision are content standards that define what students should know and be able to do at graduation and at benchmarks along the way.
In addition, parents and staff worked side by side to develop graduation expectations that identify performances, products, or other measures required of graduates; and content areas and content standards required for graduation. The role of learner outcomes in the curriculum generated a great deal of debate. Some questioned the ability to accurately measure some learner outcomes. Others feared content would be diminished as a result of the emphasis on learner outcomes.
After much dialogue, parents, staff, and community members came to a consensus that teachers should model and teach learner outcomes, but that learner outcomes should not be a part of graduation requirements. It is significant that stakeholders reached consensus on learner outcomes, content standards, and graduation requirements, and that the district was willing to listen and respond an example of genuine empowerment.
Learner outcomes continue to be important in reporting student progress. Clyde Miller Elementary School, for example, has included learner outcomes on report cards for the past four years with great success. Wayne Gilber, a parent, praised the report card because it clearly communicates students' performance and growth toward specific standards. "The report card gives students and parents a lot more information about the students' progress in context, learner outcomes, and thinking skills." A task force is currently working to determine the role of learner outcomes in districtwide grading.

Measuring What Matters

Our performance based education model assesses content standards in two different ways bodies of evidence and secured assessments which provide checks and balances for each other, thus offering an overall validity to the assessment process.
Bodies of evidence provide tangible proof of the student's knowledge, abilities, and growth. Such evidence could include a performance assessment that demonstrates students' ability to apply learning to a real world situation or more traditional forms of assessment, such as open questions.
In developing a framework for a body of evidence, Aurora schools follow four steps: (1) clarify the benchmark, (2) brainstorm possible assessments for each focus point, (3) prioritize the list of assessments and decide which ones must be part of the body of evidence, and (4) outline the scoring process. Teachers are asked to consider whether some assessments should have more weight than others, whether some should be broader, and how important the sequence of assessments is in the scoring process.
Secured assessments, administered by teachers under controlled conditions, include standardized tests and district and school developed assessments. We also use secured assessments to measure each student's individual performance against the expected achievement in basic subject area content and to determine whether students are meeting or exceeding standards. What is important about any assessment is that it states how close the student is to achieving the standard as well as the gains the student has made over time.
Based on districtwide criteria and standards that define acceptable performance, teachers develop rubrics to score and evaluate student work. The rubrics describe student performance at varying levels of achievement (N — no effort, 1 — getting started, 2 — making progress, 3 — meeting the benchmark, and 4 — exceeding the benchmark). With our strong emphasis on teaching basic skills to every student, we designed teaching and evaluation methods that require each student to demonstrate mastery of basic skills and knowledge in all content areas. Performance based education means defining exactly what we require of students, setting high standards, telling students what the expectations are, and then helping each student reach those standards.

Basic Principles of PBE

Staff, parents, and community members spent many hours developing an educational plan that would reflect the needs of students and the expectations of our community. Shared decision making is the cornerstone of our mission. We found that when the immediate stakeholders had the opportunity to make decisions and were held accountable for them, decisions improved. The fostering of two way communication, both internally and externally, reflects the value placed on openness to participation, diversity, conflict, and reflection.
Several years ago we developed six principles that serve as the guide for implementing performance based education. Adherence to these principles over time has helped Aurora Public Schools stay the course and move steadily toward the fulfillment of the district mission.
1. Define content standards and learner outcomes clearly and make them public. Stakeholder committees developed the definitions, gathering input from focus groups as well as from surveys of parents and teachers. In writing content standards and learner outcomes, they made every effort to avoid educational jargon. Continued coordination was also necessary to ensure that the district's content standards met or exceeded those being developed by the State of Colorado. Unable to wait for the introduction of state standards, Aurora had begun developing standards before receiving the state's final versions. We have needed to balance national and state standards with community expectations, developing standards that reflect high expectations and creating conditions where students can meet these expectations.
2. Establish criteria and high standards for student performance. We are developing descriptors for performance levels and clarifying the relationship between rubrics and grades. We developed rubrics, using four performance levels for the learner outcomes, and we worked with Mid Continent Regional Laboratories in identifying 15 complex thinking skills and rubrics to score them. We continue to refine rubrics for content standards to provide consistency. The present challenge is to develop clear descriptors of performance levels that teachers can use when writing their content rubrics.
3. Assess achievement on the basis of student performance. Assessment requires that students demonstrate their knowledge and skills by performing tasks that are valued in the workplace, in higher education, and throughout society. Our assessment plan provides feedback to students and parents regarding student progress in meeting the benchmarks. School and district instructional leaders also receive information regarding student progress in order to improve the overall instructional program.
The plan requires that teachers use both a body of evidence and a secured assessment. The body of evidence, which must contain multiple measures of student achievement using a variety of types of assessments, helps teachers determine whether students have met the content standards. In the secured assessment, students know the criteria for scoring ahead of time, but not the exact content. Teachers can give secured assessments at the district, building, or individual classroom level.
4. Design curriculum to ensure that students achieve the content standards. Over the next few years, we will revise the curriculum in each subject area around the identified standard. Once we identify benchmarks at each level (primary, upper elementary, middle school, and high school), we will determine what skills and knowledge students need to learn to meet those benchmarks. (See Figure 1 for an example of a primary benchmark.) These instructional concepts will define the scope of the curriculum.

Figure 1. A Primary Benchmark for Number Sense

The student demonstrates and communicates number sense by ordering; predicting; estimating; representing equivalent forms of numbers, such as fractions, decimals and percents; and by applying appropriate computational techniques.

Performance-Based Education in Aurora - table


Instructional Concepts

Computes using appropriate operationsChooses correct operations to compute
Predicts and estimates a mathematical outcomeUses estimation strategies
Compares and models whole numbers up to 100Determines ranges of estimates
Models place valueKnows whole numbers up to 100
Communicates reasonableness of an answerUnderstands conservation of numbers
Represents fractions using modelsUnderstands: Tens and hundreds place value, Money, Regrouping, Fractions, Calculators
Uses calculators when appropriateExplains and justifies thinking
5. Plan and deliver instruction to ensure that all students can achieve the content standards and make progress toward the learner outcomes. Successful strategies used by many Aurora teachers center around Dimensions of Learning, (Marzano and Pickering), which describes the kinds of thinking and learning activities that are meaningful and powerful to students. The five dimensions are (1) attitudes and perceptions about learning, (2) acquiring and integrating knowledge, (3) extending and refining knowledge, (4) using knowledge meaningfully, and (5) productive habits of mind. This framework helps teachers develop instructional strategies based on content standards and learner outcomes.
Aurora also has its own staff development courses known as Lifelong Learning in the Classroom. Courses on assessment strategies and developing bodies of evidence help teachers plan and teach units of study that integrate content standards and demonstrations of learning to help students progress. Teachers practice developing instructional strategies that provide students with opportunities to learn concepts and practice skills to prepare them for assessments.
6. Make time and opportunities for all students to achieve the content standards. We are developing strategies to support students who are not making adequate progress toward the standards, as well as those who are meeting the standards in an accelerated time frame. The conceptual design calls for each school to develop a prevention program that assures students sufficient time and opportunity to meet the benchmarks at grades 3, 5, 8, and 12 (graduation requirements). From the first day of school, students and parents will know the knowledge and skills students must demonstrate to graduate. If students are not meeting standards, intervention strategies can help them reach the benchmarks at their grade level. Teachers will use prevention and intervention strategies before retaining any student. When a student is not close to reaching a standard, however, teachers must consider retention. Schools will issue diplomas only to students who meet or exceed standards for graduation.

Lessons Learned

Our schools have made great progress toward implementing these principles, but school change is a long, demanding process. Clearly, performance based education is still a work in progress. We have learned a great deal in the past six years: the importance of being flexible, of listening, and of adjusting to meet the changing needs of a diverse audience. Although it is important to plan carefully up front, it is also important to respond as times and circumstances change.
In the spring of 1996, for the first time, we administered standardized performance assessments in reading and mathematics developed by Riverside Publishing. The district scores were in the 70th percentile on integrated language arts assessments in elementary school and the 60th percentile in middle school. The normal range of scores in our district on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills is the 40th percentile or lower. It appears that performance measures will allow students to better demonstrate their skills and knowledge.
  • teachers now infuse complex thinking skills into their daily teaching;
  • students explain their reasoning when solving problems or making decisions;
  • students apply content in real life situations through authentic tasks; and
  • teachers modify instruction based on assessment of student learning.
Our first performance based graduation class will be the class of 2001, more than 10 years after we developed the district's mission statement. Rather than a quick fix, performance based education has been a systemic change. Redirecting a large school district is much like changing the direction on a large ocean liner. When you turn the wheel, the change in direction is so slow that at first it is almost imperceptible. Implementing performance based education has taken time because we have involved thousands of our stakeholders, but we have turned the wheel and are making progress.
End Notes

1 R.J., Marzano, D. Pickering, D.E. Arredondo, G.J. Blackbum, R.S. Brandt and C.A. Moffett, (1992,1194), Implementing Dimensions of Learning, (Alexandria, VA,: ASCD).

David L. Hartenbach has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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