Understanding Proficiency — Learning from Student Work on Performance Tasks

by Jessica Arnold


Examining student work is a powerful way to reflect on whether students have mastered what they are expected to learn. In this era of new standards, teachers need to understand what mastery looks like and how to use that information to inform instruction. Without a strong foundation in how to assess students’ skills, it is difficult to provide instruction that really prepares students for college and career. However, teachers who take the time to examine and analyze student work on performance tasks are better prepared to support appropriate instruction in their own classrooms.

In order to adequately assess college and career readiness, next generation assessments use performance tasks to measure how well a student can integrate knowledge and skills across multiple standards. These performance tasks measure important 21st century skills such as synthesis and critical thinking that cannot be adequately assessed by constructed- and selected-response items.

Understanding Proficiency is a resource designed to support educators in analyzing and learning from student work on performance tasks. The website — developed by WestEd in partnership with the Stanford Center on Assessment, Learning, and Equity (SCALE) — features scored student responses to Smarter Balanced performance tasks. The student responses are annotated by practicing educators and illustrate the full range of performance levels for each task. The Understanding Proficiency site aims to use Smarter Balanced performance tasks and sample responses to support professional development and inform and enhance instruction for all students.

The student work on the Understanding Proficiency site represents grades 3 through 8 and grade 11. The site provides student responses at all performance levels to a Smarter Balanced performance task, including the task’s constructed-response questions and an essay prompt.

Additionally, Understanding Proficiency features the following resources:

  • An analysis of one student’s responses to all questions in the performance task and a discussion of instructional implications and next steps for this student.
  • Videos of educators engaged in analysis and discussion of student work.
  • Interviews with educators about what they learned from scoring student responses.
  • Professional development tools to support educators in using these resources for professional learning.

These materials can be used by individuals or teams of educators who want to gain a deeper understanding of Smarter Balanced performance tasks and scoring tools, develop a sense of how students can demonstrate mastery of the Common Core State Standards through performance tasks, and consider the instructional implications of offering all students opportunities to develop college- and career-ready skills.

Click here to see a sample collection of resources focused on grade 4 writing, or visit the Understanding Proficiency site for English/language arts resources at every grade level, and for videos and professional development tools. Mathematics resources will be added in spring 2016.

Understanding Proficiency was developed with generous support from The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. For more information on the Trust and its programs, visit

Senior Program Associate, Center for Prevention & Early Intervention, WestEd