On page 96 of the book "A Repair Kit for Grading", the author (Ken O'Connor) draws a useful analogy between performance-based assessment and a band or a sports team:
"It is critical that both teachers and students recognize when assessment is primarily for learning (formative) and when it is primarily of learning (summative). Students understand this in band and in sports, when practice is clearly identified and separate from an actual performance or game."
If we follow this analogy, then the final exam for a unit and/or course becomes the big game for the sports team. If you are training basketball players, don't you think that the best way to test their abilities is to have them play a game? In this way the coach sets out the big game as the final exam, and in the same way all of the activities that lead up to that game are meant to help the players prepare for that game.
The diagnostic assessment is an initial activity that puts students in a simulated game to see what their strengths and weaknesses are. Once they have been identified, the formative assessments are the practice sessions that help students refine specific technical skills, build leadership skills, raise stamina and work on team building, all necessary for each player to perform at his/her best and for the team to win.
Note that in this case,
• All of the players clearly understand what is expected of them by the time the big game comes around.
• All of them understand what their individual and collective strengths and weaknesses are and are motivated to improve their skills in order to support the team.
• The coach wants the players to do their best and pushes the players to practice hard so they can do so.
• The team knows that the practices don't give them points in the final game, and for that reason its the game that counts and not the practices, although the more they practice the better they will play in the game. After the big game, the team evaluates its performance, draws up new strategies to improve and starts practicing again.
Designing a multi-stage, complex performance task as the final exam allows teachers to identify all of the discrete skills students will need to perform well at the end so they can be practiced in low-stakes situations, tried out in scrimmage games and practiced again so that everybody feels ready for the big game. This movement back and forth between instruction and applying, between drilling discrete skills and performance of the whole task is what helps students learn well. It also helps them learn to learn, which is a capacity that comes in handy as the students take on further personal and academic responsibilities.
Although teachers don't give the same or similar tests more than once as coaches do, we do teach more complex skills that build on what students had to learn for the previous exam. In this way the capacities teachers aim to develop in our students by the end of the semester or year are complex and broad.
This analogy has provided me with a variety of new perspectives on assessment as well as some criteria to evaluate my own assessment strategies. I have become a better teacher by practicing this concept and I hope it gives others some valuable insight too.