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December 1, 1996
Vol. 54
No. 4

Using Work Sampling in Authentic Assessments

Early childhood and elementary teachers are using this authentic performance assessment to document children's learning experiences, meet standards, and connect assessment to instruction.

AssessmentInstructional Strategies
The Work Sampling System, an authentic performance assessment, is based on teachers' observations of children at work in the classroom learning, solving problems, interacting, and creating products. Designed for students in preschool through 5th grade, the Work Sampling System includes three interrelated elements:
  • Developmental guidelines and checklists
  • Portfolios
  • Summary reports
These elements focus on the classroom and reflect national, state, and local standards, as well as the teacher's objectives. Instead of providing a mere snapshot of narrow academic skills at a single point in time, Work Sampling is an ongoing documentation and evaluation process designed to improve the teacher's instructional practices and student learning. Since 1991, this system has been used in nearly every state, the District of Columbia, and Canada, with more than 300,000 students.
Work Sampling, a low stakes, nonstigmatizing system, relies on extensive sampling of children's academic, personal, and social progress over the school year. It provides a rich source of information about student strengths and weaknesses. Hands on professional development activities are key to using the system. In these activities, teachers learn how to observe, document, and evaluate student performance during actual classroom lessons. Through the checklists and other structures, teachers can systematically assess students' progress in seven curricular areas: personal and social development, language and literacy, mathematical thinking, scientific thinking, social studies, the arts, and physical development.
Charlotte Stetson, of Brattleboro, Vermont, is one of many elementary teachers who use Work Sampling to assess students' performance and progress. The following observations show how she links curriculum with assessment (see Dodge et al. 1994, pp. 204 205). The phrases in italics are performance indicators from the Work Sampling checklists for 1st and 2nd grade.
One fall I used animals as an umbrella theme in my multiage 1st and 2nd grade classroom. The children explored the question, "How do animals prepare for winter?" We examined our own preparations for winter and discovered that our activities fell into several categories: keeping warm, having food, and moving around. Using prior knowledge, books, other media, and community resources, we considered how various creatures prepare for winter.
A field trip to watch the hawk migration from the top of a nearby mountain was the high point of our investigations. The combination of content matter and activities provided me with extensive opportunities to observe children's abilities and skills in seven curriculum areas. For example, various children used strategies to solve mathematical problems by figuring out a quick way to count 50 acorns. Some simply sped up their counting, others grouped by 10s. The children guessed how many acorns were in each size jar (small, medium, and large), giving me a good sense of their ability to make reasonable estimates of quantities.
One 1st grader worked tenaciously at the easel, painting and labeling a gorgeous red tailed hawk, and pulled me over to see it. This was a wonderful example of a child using the arts to express and represent ideas, emotions, and experiences. Children spontaneously wrote stories and poems or drew pictures about the winter habits of various creatures, showing eagerness and curiosity as learners. They repeatedly went to the library asking for books on hawks, demonstrating a sustained interest in tasks or topics over time.

Emphasizing Evaluation and Documentation

Work Sampling involves two complementary processes: evaluation and documentation.
Evaluation is judging how closely something approximates a standard, whether it is objective and external (for example, "Shows an understanding of fractions, decimals, and percents") or subjective and open to interpretation ("Shows eagerness and curiosity as a learner").
Documentation is the record of what is learned during an evaluation, or the data on which the evaluation is based. It can take many forms: an audiotape of a student's violin playing, a paragraph prepared for a writing assignment, a demonstration of strategies used to solve a mathematical problem, a chart depicting biological growth, or a teacher's anecdotal notes about children's playground interactions.
Unfortunately, many assessments provide evaluation without documentation. For example, when parents are notified of their child's performance on state assessments or other group achievement tests, they typically receive a summary of the percentage or number of correct items on particular "content strands." This tells them very little about what their child can or cannot do, their child's performance during the assessment, or their child's areas of strength or weakness.
Assessments without documentation are blind. But documentation without context also does not illuminate student performance and can be misleading. Lack of specificity and absence of explanation and illustration are among the greatest limitations of norm referenced, group administered achievement tests (Calfee 1992, Meisels 1996, Taylor 1994).
Documentation that does not reflect the classroom context can lead to faulty conclusions. For example, some "performance based" assessments ask students to respond to test probes that may be inconsistent with their classroom curriculum. Many students do poorly on these on demand assessments because of the way the items are constructed, not because they lack skills or because their teachers are not following an appropriate curriculum.
Sensitivity to context requires more than documenting a response by displaying a child's work. How the documentation is obtained is nearly as important as what is documented. Performance assessments that call for students to "show your work" when collected on demand, outside the regular framework of classroom activities, and under unfamiliar or stressful conditions, can yield misleading information about student achievement. These types of assessments are not authentic. They do not show what the child is learning, how the child is learning it, or the quality of the child's work over time.

An Authentic, Systematic Approach

By contrast, authentic performance assessment, such as Work Sampling, documents actual classroom experiences, embedding evaluation in the context of learning (Herman et al. 1992, Wolf and Rearden 1996). Students demonstrate their knowledge and skills in the course of their everyday work by solving problems, doing mathematical computations, writing journal entries, conducting experiments, presenting oral reports, and assembling portfolios of representative work. Authentic assessment is closely linked to teachers' decisions about what they teach and how children learn.
  • Understanding individual differences among children
  • Connecting these perceptions to a well defined framework of development
  • Using these observations to improve instruction and maximize students' learning (Meisels 1994, Meisels et al. 1995a, Wolf et al. 1991).
Teachers using Work Sampling learn to translate their students' work into the data of assessment by systematically documenting and evaluating it, using specific criteria and well defined procedures.
Work Sampling helps teachers forge the connections between student learning and their instruction by comparing their own curriculum objectives with standards of student achievement. This process of integration helps teachers motivate students and promote learning and helps students recognize the relationship between what they are learning and how they are being evaluated.

Documenting Observations

The Work Sampling System uses three forms of documentation: checklists, portfolios, and summary reports.
1. Checklists for each grade (preschool 5th) list classroom activities and expectations that are developmentally appropriate and learner centered. Each checklist covers the seven major curriculum areas. The performance indicators included in the checklists are derived from national and state curriculum standards.
As Figures 1 and 2 show [figures currently unavailable], each skill, behavior, or accomplishment is presented in the form of a one sentence performance indicator (for example, "Understands and interprets a story or other text"). The checklist's 3 level mastery scale Not Yet, In Process, and Proficient helps teachers trace each student's performance. This structure is appropriate for diverse populations, including students with special needs.
Accompanying each checklist area are detailed developmental guidelines (fig. 3), which explain the meaning and significance of each performance indicator and outline reasonable expectations for children at different ages. Examples show several ways children might demonstrate the skill or accomplishment represented by the indicator. The guidelines promote consistency of interpretation and evaluation among different teachers, children, and schools.

Figure 3. Section of 1st Grade Guidelines

II. Language and Literacy

A. Listening

1. Listens for meaning in discussions and conversations.

Six-year-olds are acquiring the ability to listen to the ideas of others and to listen as a way of gaining information. Because interest is a key factor in their listening ability, six-year-olds easily listen for pleasure and enjoyment. They can often sit for extended periods of time listening to a “good” story, but will squirm and fidgit if asked to attend to something that does not immediately capture their interest. Examples of how they demonstrate listening skills include:

  • responding appropriately to a presentation (for example, asking a relevant question after listening to a friend's story);

  • hearing a story about a family that moves to a different country and relating a personal anecdote;

  • retelling what is heard after a story is read aloud or following another kind of presentation.

From the Work Sampling System Developmental Guidelines: First Grade Through Fifth Grade, 3rd edition, 1994, J.R. Jablon, S.J. Meisels, D.B. Marsden, and M.L. Dichtelmiller (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Rebus Planning Associates, Inc.)

These guidelines and checklists incorporate information from many sources, including state and national standards. Teachers can create a profile of each student's progress in developing skills, acquiring knowledge, and mastering behaviors that are central to personal and social development and academic success.
2. Portfolios illustrate students' efforts, progress, and achievements in an organized and structured way. Work Sampling portfolios include two types of work: core items and individualized items. Core items exemplify how a child functions throughout the year in five domains language and literacy, mathematical thinking, scientific thinking, social studies, and the arts. A core item represents a particular area of learning within each domain. For example, in mathematical thinking, an area of learning could be "using logic and reasoning to solve and explain mathematical problems" in which the core items might consist of drawings, lists, diagrams, charts, or written descriptions of the solution.
Individualized items reflect a child's goals, interests, and abilities in various curricular areas. For example, an illustrated science journal entry might show how the child wrote, painted, tallied, and summarized an investigation. An individualized item may also represent a significant event, such as a child's first attempt at acrylic painting or a short story. Such items often reveal many aspects of learning, thinking, and performance. A student's journal entries, for example, show how the child is able to express ideas, organize written text, spell, and use vocabulary. Journal entries also give insight into the child's personal and social development by revealing daily events, interests, and attitudes (Meisels et al. 1994).
Moreover, Work Sampling portfolios are meaningful to students; they not only shed light on qualitative differences among students' work, but also enable children to take an active role in evaluating their own work.
By compiling and discussing portfolios together, teachers and children make instructional decisions. Each portfolio parallels classroom activities, leads to new activities based on the child's progress and interests, and provides a cross section of classroom life that is easy to interpret. By contrast, more typical, unstructured portfolios are mere collections of student work that often do not clearly show student progress, accomplishments, and participation in the class.
3. Summary Reports replace conventional report cards as a way to inform parents and record student progress for teachers and administrators. These reports transform information from teacher observations, checklists, and portfolios into evaluations of student performance across all curricular areas. Teachers complete the reports three times per year, writing a narrative of their judgments and completing brief rating scales. Reports are available in both paper and electronic versions. Summary Reports translate the rich information documented by Work Sampling into easily understandable evaluations for students, families, and other educators.

Learning to See

To recognize student growth and learning, teachers must be willing to examine their own teaching and their ability to watch children closely and systematically. From the start, Work Sampling professional development activities guide teachers in learning how to transform observations into reliable documentation and evaluation. We encourage teachers to collaborate with one another as they use our materials, and we are committed to long term follow up and support.
To experience the impact of this approach, we return to Vermont teacher Charlotte Stetson's observations, which show what she learned about her 1st and 2nd graders' abilities and skills in three curriculum areas:
Language and literacy. I heard children discussing how to make a curved beak out of clay, which made me realize that they listen for meaning in discussions and conversations. One child drew and wrote about what the people and creatures in Blueberries for Sal were doing to prepare for winter. She understood and interpreted information from the story that we had read.
Scientific thinking. One little girl went on a nature walk to collect some winter nesting materials for a mouse and returned with long grasses, fluffy milkweed down, and crinkly leaves. She was observing characteristics and behaviors of living and non living things. A classmate of hers drew a bear inside a large black circle and wrote, "bears sleep," letting me know that he could communicate scientific information in various ways.
Social studies. I interrupted a song with the lyrics "People affect the whole world with their bad habits" to ask what this means. One child explained that "they push their old cars over river banks," recognizing how people affect their environment. Another child drew many lines through an odd shaped outline and dictated to me, "This is a map of birds migrating." This gave me ample evidence that this 1st grader had gained an early understanding that maps represent actual places.
These observations show how assessment complements instruction and how this teacher keeps track of her curriculum and her students' varied work.

Looking at Results

How effective is Work Sampling? A recent study of the system's reliability and validity with 100 kindergartners used a psychometric design in which children who were enrolled in classrooms using the system were also given individually administered, norm referenced assessments in the fall and spring (Meisels et al. 1995b). In addition, their teachers completed a behavior rating scale in the spring. Results showed that the checklist and summary report (including portfolio ratings) had very high internal and moderately high interrater reliability.
Moreover, the Work Sampling System accurately predicted performance on the norm referenced battery of individually administered achievement tests, even when the potential effects of gender, age, and initial ability were controlled. Overall, this study provided initial empirical support for the reliability and criterion validity of the system with young children.

Linking Instruction and Assessment

For too long, assessment and instruction have been adversaries. Teachers say that they cannot teach as they wish because they spend time preparing their students and modifying their curriculums to conform to items that will appear on mandated achievement tests. Policymakers say that they need objective information to show what students are learning and what teachers are teaching, even if the indicators provided to teachers are inconsistent with educational practice and are seriously flawed in other ways.
With authentic performance assessments such as Work Sampling, these conflicts can be resolved. In this approach, educators design instructional objectives for teaching and learning, as well as for evaluation. The data from instruction are the data of assessment. The documentation is a combination of the student's work; the teacher's detailed records of student performance that are linked to national, state, and local standards; and the teacher's and student's reflections on classroom activities.
By placing assessment in the hands of teachers and embedding it in active curriculum making, we remove the mystery from evaluation and confer new meaning on the entire assessment process. Linking assessment and instruction enhances teaching and improves student learning.

Calfee, R. (1992). "Authentic Assessments of Reading and Writing in the Elementary Classroom." In Elementary School Literacy: Critical Issues (pp. 211 226), edited by M.J. Dreher and W.H. Slater. Norwood, Mass.: Christopher-Gordon.

Dodge, D.T., J.R. Jablon, and T.S. Bickart. (1994). Constructing Curriculum for the Primary Grades. Washington, D.C.: Teaching Strategies, Inc.

Herman, J.L., P.R. Aschbacher, and L. Winters. (1992). A Practical Guide to Alternative Assessment. Alexandria, Va.: ASCD.

Meisels, S.J. (1994). "Designing Meaningful Measurements for Early Childhood." In Diversity in Early Childhood Education: A Call for More Inclusive Theory, Practice, and Policy (pp. 205 225), edited by B.L. Mallory and R.S. New. New York: Teachers College Press.

Meisels, S.J. (1996). "Performance in Context: Assessing Children's Achievement at the Outset of School." In The Five to Seven Year Shift: The Age of Reason and Responsibility (pp. 407 431), edited by A.J. Sameroff and M.M. Haith. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Meisels, S.J., A. Dorfman, and D. Steele. (1995a). "Equity and Excellence in Group Administered and Performance based Assessments." In Equity in Educational Assessment and Testing (pp. 243 264), edited by M.T. Nettles and A.L. Nettles. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Meisels, S.J., J. Jablon, D.B. Marsden, M.L. Dichtelmiller, and A. Dorfman. (1994). The Work Sampling System. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Rebus Planning Associates, Inc.

Meisels, S.J., F R. Liaw, A. Dorfman, and R. Nelson. (1995b). "The Work Sampling System: Reliability and Validity of a Performance Assessment for Young Children." Early Childhood Research Quarterly 10, 3: 277 296.

Taylor, C. (1994). "Assessment for Measurement or Standards: The Peril and Promise of Large Scale Assessment Reform." American Educational Research Journal 31: 231 262.

Wolf, D.P., J. Bixby, J. Glenn, and H. Gardner. (1991). "To Use Their Minds Well: Investigating New Forms of Student Assessment." In Review of Research in Education (Vol. 17, pp. 31 74), edited by G. Grant. Washington, D.C.: American Educational Research Association.

Wolf, D.P., and S. Reardon. (1996). "Access to Excellence Through New Forms of Student Assessment." In Performance Based Student Assessment: Challenges and Possibilities (95th Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, pp. 1 31), edited by J.B. Baron and D.P. Wolf. Chicago: National Society for the Study of Education.

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