# Performance Tasks: What are they? Why are they important?

#### Rusty Bresser

A respected colleague once reminded me of an old saying, “You can’t fatten a pig by weighing it.” She was a classroom teacher and exasperated by all the testing she had to do with her students. She understood that just measuring or evaluating students repeatedly doesn’t lead to progress or improvement. Her frustrations really resonated with me. More is not necessarily better.

The goal of assessment should be to improve student learning, and oftentimes teachers receive test scores in an untimely manner. Ideally, assessments provide teachers with information that they can immediately use to guide their instruction and provide feedback to their students so that they can improve. Giving just- in-time feedback is one of the most significant activities a teacher can engage in to improve student achievement (Australian Journal of Education, 2013). Using the results of performance tasks is one way teachers can engage in the feedback process and reflect on their instructional practices.

**What is a Performance Task?**

While multiple measures for gauging students’ abilities in math are important, some assessments are better than others, and performance tasks stand out. So, what is a performance task?

In a way, a performance task is just that, a performance. Students show what they can do by creating models, by explaining their thinking, and by showing the steps they took to solve a problem. Linda Darling-Hammond of the Learning Policy Institute says, “Performance tasks enable teachers to gather evidence not just about what a student knows, but also what he/she/they can do with that knowledge.” Essentially, performance tasks tell us how students apply their knowledge to solve problems.

Performance tasks have distinct features that make them stand out in comparison to other types of assessments. These tasks engage students in problem solving situations where they must apply what they know, think critically, model solutions, and communicate their math thinking. Performance tasks often are situated in real life contexts such as calculating the area of a park, determining how likely it is for a YouTube career to turn you into a YouTube Millionaire, or figuring out something mathematical that arises in a children’s story. Jo Boaler sums it up well:

“Mathematics performance tasks engage students in real problem-solving and critical thinking, moving beyond rote memorization to deeper understanding. These tasks not only make math more relevant and interesting but also help develop essential skills needed for the 21st century.”

**How do Performance Tasks and Unit Assessments Compare?**

Performance tasks and unit assessments can have a lot in common, especially if the unit assessment is a rich one. Both types of assessments are accessible to a range of students and tend to have a low floor and high ceiling. They both elicit students’ critical thinking and require some sort of communication.

A unit assessment focuses entirely on what a student has learned in a particular math unit. For example, a unit assessment at the end of a multiplication unit would specifically assess what concepts and skills students have learned in that unit. On the other hand, a performance task may not test what students are currently learning. While they can assess specific skills learned during the year, performance tasks measure broader skills such as application, problem solving, and math explanations. They include novel or unique problems and can be used to measure growth over time, especially if they are implemented across a school year (trimester 1, 2, and 3 for example).

**Middle School Performance Task: “Cat Food”**

In the Lakeside Union School District, middle school teachers in grades 6, 7, and 8 designed a system of performance tasks that focus on supporting student math explanations. Each trimester, they pose a performance task to all three grade levels. They intentionally designed each task using important math content that was securely held by students in all three grades, creating space for students to focus on problem solving and high quality math explanations without getting bogged down by math content that they were currently learning.

Their focus on math explanations is grounded in the emphasis on mathematical communication within the *California Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice* (California Board of Education 2013) and the demand for strong communication skills arising out of a survey of current employers (National Association of Colleges and Employers, 2023). They are also interested in learning about how students model and solve math problems as well as how their understanding of foundational math content compares across the three grades.

Together, they analyze student explanations, provide timely feedback to students, design next instructional steps, and invite students to revise their work.

For one of the trimesters, they chose the following task to give to their students. Once you read the problem, take a minute and try to solve it!

Upon getting the students’ work back, the middle school teachers poured over the papers and shared their reflections and findings. There was a lot to learn. In what ways did their students communicate their math thinking? How did they model or “mathematize” the problem? How did they incorporate the context of the problem into their explanation? How did they organize their problem solving attempts? To what degree were their explanations logically complete? Were students able to showcase their understanding of equivalent fractions? Could they decompose fractions? Were they able to add or multiply fractions? If a student got an incorrect answer, did their explanation uncover some correct mathematical thinking (as evidenced by the example below)?

Yes, he would have enough. Tipsy would eat 3 and a half boxes in a week, cosmo would eat 1 and 3/4 boxes in a week, and willow eats 7/8 of a box a week. All of it added up is a bit over 5 boxes. So, 6 boxes would be perfect so if one of the cats is a bit more hungry he will have enough.

When analyzing this student’s work, we can see that they correctly figured out how much each cat eats in a week, but made an error when adding up the total number of boxes. Sometimes, incorrect answers can mask what students know and can do. The beauty of a performance task is that a student’s thinking has the potential to be transparent. We can see what they know and what are their areas for growth.

Performance tasks also provide us with information we can use to give students feedback. For example, I might say to the student, “Yes, I agree Tipsy eats 3 ½ boxes a week. Can you show how you figured that out?” Or, “How do you know that all of it added up to a bit over 5 boxes? Explain how you know.”

**First Grade Performance Task: “Some Fish”**

For students in TK-2 classrooms, performance tasks also have contexts that have a low floor and high ceiling so everyone has access and so teachers can see a range of thinking.

For example, first grade teachers at Valley Elementary chose Some Fish! as a performance task for the beginning of the year, posing the following problem.

Notice how the task is structured to cast a wide net; some students might find all the combinations, whereas others might find one or two. When teachers analyze students’ work, the number of combinations is one aspect of the solutions they will examine; however, they will also analyze how students mathematically model the situation, how they organize their work, and how they logically communicate their thinking. Performance tasks create space for students to show how they approach novel problems and allow teachers to uncover their strengths.

**Third Grade Performance Task: “Six Dinner Sid”**

Third grade teachers in a different district chose to read the book Six Dinner Sid by Inga Moore to launch the task.

The book is about a black cat named Sid who lives in a house on Aristotle Street. But he also lives at five other houses on the same street so he can eat six dinners a day! He is a sneaky cat who gets away with his big secret until one day he comes down with a cold and must go to the vet. The vet discovers his secret and shares the news with all the neighbors.

The teachers posed this problem to their students: How many dinners did Sid eat in one week? They also offered a bonus problem: How many dinners did he eat in three weeks?

The teachers decided to pose this performance task during the second trimester. Similar to the decision of the middle school teachers from Lakeside, although their students weren’t working on a multiplication unit at the time, the teachers were interested in whether students would apply multiplication to this problem situation.

They were also interested in how their students communicated their thinking and what models they would use to solve the problem. Ultimately, they wanted to identify students’ strengths and provide just-in-time, actionable feedback.

Here’s an example of one student’s response to the task. The work reveals a lot about Harper’s thinking. If you were her teacher, what might you learn from her work sample? What CAN she do?

**The Benefits of Performance Tasks**

When teachers pose performance tasks across the year, they get a chance to see the progress their students are making in three important areas: problem solving, critical thinking, and communication. They get an opportunity to come together as grade level groups, analyze their students’ work, and ask questions about student learning and effective instructional strategies.

- During their time together, a grade level group may ask and discuss a variety of questions.
- How are our students doing with writing about their thinking?
- What can we do to better support them?
- What actionable feedback can we provide that will help?
- Are students able to find a viable pathway to a solution?
- What can we do to help them make sense of problem situations?
- How are students applying their knowledge, and how might we better help them do so? Are problems accessible to all students?
- How can we modify our instruction to provide more equitable access?

Questions like these and the conversations that follow have the potential to increase collaboration and coherence within and across grade levels and, ultimately, improve student achievement. Performance tasks don’t have to be “just one more assessment we have to give.” They require little preparation and are much like any other problem we pose. Alan Schoenfeld (Stanford University) points out the power of performance tasks when he states, “[Performance tasks] provide a window into students’ thinking, allowing us to see not only the correctness of their answers, but the depth of their understanding, and the strategies they use to solve problems.”.

Unlike traditional forms of assessment, performance tasks are not meant to rank and sort our students. With performance tasks, we can use that ‘window into students’ thinking’ to build on their strengths. We can support them in their areas for growth and improve upon and guide our instruction in order to realize the true goal of assessment, which is to improve student learning.