Which Summative Assessment Formats are Critical to Competency-based or Mastery-based Learning?

What types of summative assessments should be a part of our Competency-based or Mastery-based assessment model? Do traditional assessments go away? What about in math class, specifically? Is it really feasible to do multi-week projects all of the time?

These are common questions we are frequently asked in our work with practitioners. In this blog post, we define and differentiate between three different types of assessment formats that are critical to Competency-based and Mastery-based Learning models (and while we’re at it, “Deeper Learning” models as well): embedded performance tasks, short performance tasks, and standardized tests (you say, What?!). We also offer a roundup of resources for sourcing quality performance tasks, as well as guidance on how to approach balancing these assessment types in your assessment model.

Let’s get started.

What is a performance task?

Because they allow students to construct or perform an original response rather than just recognizing a potentially right answer out of a list provided, performance assessments can measure students’ cognitive thinking and reasoning skills and their ability to apply knowledge to solve realistic, meaningful problems (Darling-Hammond & Adamson, 2010).

Performance tasks (also called “performance assessments” or “performance-based assessments”) are a signature assessment format of Competency-based Learning (CBL) and Mastery-based Learning contexts because they involve the application of skills and knowledge to authentic tasks and complex problems. This assessment format is essential to CBL/Mastery Learning because it creates meaningful opportunities for learners to practice and demonstrate their ability to transfer their knowledge and skills to novel situations at increasing levels of complexity.

At reDesign, we define performance tasks in this way:

A performance task is a demonstration of the application of knowledge and high-order skills to a real-world problem or task, tailored to a specific audience, and assessed by clear criterion-referenced expectations for success. A performance task has four key ingredients.

A quick note about “authenticity:” There are different dimensions to authenticity. We think of performance tasks as always culminating in a final product that is authentic in its format (e.g., real people write lab reports; real people participate in book club discussions; real people design water filtration systems), in its purpose (e.g., real scientists report on their findings to build or critique knowledge in a field or discipline; real people enjoy and benefit from talking about books and sharing their meaning making processes; real communities in the world need solutions to increase their access to safe, potable water); and in its audience (e.g., fellow scientists; friends and colleagues; communities with specific needs and contexts). Format, purpose, audience.

While we celebrate great project-based models that meet the Gold Standard PBL design “public product” criterion, we do not believe that all performance tasks must engage a specific audience every time. We do believe that learners should have regular opportunities to engage real audiences with their work, as often is feasible. In the mean time, lots of great learning, thinking, collaborating, and creating can happen through performance tasks that involve authentic task formats and purposes, and which are tailored to specific audiences (whether fictitious or real; whether or not actually engaged).

Are there different types of performance tasks?

There are two primary forms of performance tasks used in Competency-based and Mastery-based Learning contexts: embedded performance tasks, and short performance tasks.

Embedded performance tasks are embedded throughout the unit of study, and typically involve multiple stages of work that build toward a final product or “project” (e.g., business plan, infographic, garden design, argumentative essay). Embedded performance tasks are important because they provide experiential learning opportunities for students: real-world applications of disciplinary content, situated in an authentic context, tailored for a specific (whether fictitious or real) audience, that result in a meaningful and relevant product that reflects real-world work.

Embedded performance tasks also create an important curricular structure that reinforces several key pedagogical practices of a Competency-based or Mastery-based Learning context: the activation of learners’ schema, explicit skill and strategy instruction, timely and actionable feedback, regular conferring and check-ins, and the prompting of learners metacognitive awareness throughout the learning process so they can self-monitor and develop self-regulated learning skills.

Short performance tasks take place at the end of a lesson or lesson series and provide opportunities for learners to apply their new skills and knowledge “on-demand” to real-world problems or situations on a smaller scale. Short performance tasks ensure students routinely experience authentic applications of disciplinary content, as well as opportunities to self-assess one’s ability to transfer new learning. They still ask students to build deeper learning in application to a new, real-world context, but they do not require students to create a large final product. Because the product is smaller, these performance tasks take up less time and can be utilized in every unit in addition to other forms of assessment.

In both types of performance tasks, opportunities for feedback and revision are critical to support the learning process. Put another way, performance tasks are a form of “assessment as learning” and “assessment for learning,” not strictly assessment of learning. As our Director, Antonia Rudenstine, likes to say, “performance tasks are formative, until they are summative [finalized and finished].”

What is it? Mid-to-large-scale application of new skills and knowledge to an open-ended, complex real-world problem or task, tailored to a specific audience. Process stages are embedded throughout the unit. Small-scale application of new skills and concepts to an open-ended, challenging real-world problem or scenario.
How long? ~5+ hours ~30 min to 5 hours
Feedback and revision? Yes, throughout each stage Yes, after submission
What does it measure? Measures student learning throughout an instructional unit. Measures student learning at the conclusion of a lesson or short lesson series.
Who? Individual and/or collaborative Independent

What role do standardized assessments play in a CBL/Mastery Context?

Standardized tests are formal assessments of student learning that mirror the types of gateway standardized examinations that students will encounter throughout their educational careers (e.g., state exams, SAT, ACT, GMAT). Although a shift toward more performance-based assessment is underway at the state level, short-response questions, such as selected-response and constructed-response, remain a common assessment format. The reason this assessment format is included in a CBL/Mastery context is that, ultimately, CBL/Mastery Learning systems are designed to support all learners in preparing for the world beyond school, and for many postsecondary and career pathways, standardized assessments remain a dominant fixture.

When this question recently came up with a team of educators, my colleague Gianna Cassetta posed this suggestion: study this form of assessment with students as a “genre.” Help students understand the “why” behind these types of questions, and help them mentally prepare for the setting in which they’ll engage with them. Finally, Ensure students have opportunities for ongoing practice with similar question types that will help them gain familiarity with the format.It is important to note that using short selected- and constructed-response questions as the only assessment format is not consistent with a CBL/Mastery-based approach. This approach deprives learners of the opportunity to learn experientially, applying their knowledge and skills as they engage with complex problems or tasks in authentic settings. It deprives learners of the rich experience of feedback and revision as they deepen their understanding and hone their skills. It deprives learners of the opportunity to practice sustaining engagement over time and in collaboration with others. These are just a few of the reasons that it is critical that performance tasks are used routinely and in conjunction with traditional tests to ensure deeper, rigorous learning experiences.

How do I balance these three different assessment types when planning my course?

The goal is to ensure that students have routine exposure to all three formats: embedded performance tasks (or “projects”), short performance tasks, and short-response questions. While there is no hard and fast rule, here are some guidelines to consider:


  • Consider including 1-3 embedded performance tasks (e.g., engineering design task, mathematical modeling task, experimental design task, lab report) per academic year or course portfolio, with ongoing opportunities for self-assessment, feedback, and time-bound revision windows
  • Consider including one or more short performance tasks in most or all units of study, with opportunities for self-assessment, feedback, and time-bound revision windows
  • Consider including a short test at the end of a unit of study that mirrors standardized test questions, with an opportunity for feedback, additional practice, and a time-bound retake


  • Consider building most units of study around one embedded performance task, with ongoing opportunities for self-assessment, feedback, and time-bound revision windows.
  • Consider including one or more short “on-demand” performance tasks in most or all units of study, with opportunities for self-assessment, feedback, and time-bound revision windows
  • Consider including a short test at the end of a unit of study that mirrors standardized test questions, with an opportunity for feedback, additional practice, and a time-bound retake

Where can I find examples of high-quality performance tasks to adapt or learn from?

There is a growing body of open-source performance tasks available through vetted websites (though most are short performance tasks), and in recent years, more packaged curricula are including performance tasks in order to attend to all aspects of rigor. To avoid the intensive design process, try to source existing performance tasks and adapt as needed. Some resources are provided below:



You can also find embedded performance task models for the following four math-related tasks on reDesign’s open source Design Lab:

We hope this post offers some helpful guidance and resources as you think about assessments for your learning system. As always, we welcome your comments below!

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