Authentic Assessment

Authentic assessment is a popular term in education. If by the end of this blog, you like what I'm talking about, you will also like project based learning. Check out the video below, which probably simplifies the concept too much but is good nonetheless. I think that it is often misunderstood by those in education based on what I have read online and in my textbooks. There seems to be a belief among some that having students write an essay qualifies as a authentic assessment* because, the thought goes, writing is a skill that most people will need in their future jobs/careers. I agree to an extent. But not entirely. defines authentic assessment as 'tasks that resemble reading and writing in the real world.' You can read the whole article here

*I'm about 99% sure that I could find many examples similar to what was said by, but that's not really my point here. I want to spend more time talking about why authentic assessments are great to have in class than I spend proving that some people misunderstand the term. On we go...

Written responses ranging from short answer writing prompts to full essays are an important tool as both formative (ongoing) assessment and summative (end-of-unit) assessment. I assign writing tasks quite often. Probably too often if you ask my students. Every project that I assign has some sort of writing task involved, ranging from a full-on essay to a series of prompts that require shorter written responses. 

The point of this is not to convince you that writing should be removed from your classroom. The point is that I don't think that it automatically qualifies as a 'authentic assessment'. I'm going to eventually come back to the We The People competition that my US Government class competed in a few weeks ago, but let's first get on the same page with what I mean by 'authentic assessment'.

What is a 'authentic assessment'?
As a teacher in general and a social studies teacher specifically, I subscribe to the thought that one of the more important goals of educators is to prepare young adults to be productive and responsible members of society. This thought is far too common to be contributed to a single source, but one I like in particular is a professor of Psychology at North Central College (what a great name for a college, by the way) named Jon Mueller. When comparing authentic assessment with traditional assessment (think of an ACT style multiple choice exam), Mueller says the following*:

In contrast {to traditional assessment}, authentic assessment springs from the following reason and practice:
1. A school's mission is to develop productive citizens
2. To be a productive citizen, an individual must be capable of performing meaningful tasks in the real world.
3. Therefore, schools must help student become proficient at performing the tasks that they will encounter when they graduate.
4. To determine if it is successful, the school must then ask students to perform meaningful tasks that replicate real world challenges to see if students are capable of doing so.

* If you have 10 or 15 minutes, read through his entire article on authentic assessment here. It will be well worth your time!

What can authentic assessment look like in the classroom?
So let's look at this point by point. I completely agree with number one. If you do not, then we fundamentally disagree about the purpose of education in society and the role the teacher should play. I hope you leave a comment because I love to talk about things like this. But we certainly disagree about some basic stuff. I think that number two is where essays creep in to the picture and slowly take over the whole thing like a cancerous growth. The important question is what is meant by a meaningful task. Are we talking about learning how to conduct a job interview? That's meaningful. Are we talking about filling out an inventory report? For many, this will become a central task in their careers. Are we talking about reading at grade level or improving one's reading level by {fill in the blank} points on the SRI scale? How many 'meaningful tasks become irrelevant if the student doesn't read at grade level?

Writing an essay becomes a task that is very easily proven as meaningful, in part because it is really, really meaningful. Again, I use writing a lot in my class and I hope that you do too! I also think that we as teachers need to get more creative with what we think of as meaningful assessments. We The People is a great example. Students have to write and source an essay, but they also had to work as a team to decide who would speak each portion of the essay. More on that later. I want to make my students go way beyond simply researching and writing a paper in their assessments. I talk to my kids a lot about owning what they do because I think that gets at the heart of making anything that we do authentic. How can I ever claim that something is authentic for me or a student if it is just another activity where we all go through the motions. The chart below does a great job of helping visualize the depth of traditional vs. authentic assessments.

One way to look at authentic vs traditional assessment

On to number three, where the important term is 'become proficient', which implies that students do not start the process proficient. I'm going to use my US Government class as an example again. They worked on individual presentations at the start of the year. I gave them very little in the way of guidelines. Their task was to make a presentation using any medium (powerpoint, video, etc...) that explained the purpose of government, which was one of the first topics that we studied in class. The presentations were, to put it kindly, not the best ever. But this was 4 weeks into the school year. I wanted to do two things; one for the kids and one for me. For me, I wanted to see where the kids were with their research and presentation skills. For the kids, I wanted to make it clear that they would need to do more than pass a test each month to succeed in my class. Four months later, both classes together gave 6 high-quality presentations and most did a proficient job of answering questions from judges as part of We The People. One of the classes traveled to Jefferson City, spent three hours on a Sunday night at a hotel practicing, and made me an incredibly proud teacher at the state-level competition. The students are not master presenters, but the growth that occurred over a 4-5 month period is what makes me proud and is how I judge the job that I am doing when I reflect. 

Number four then is where a competition like We The People becomes so important. (You can read my post about the competition here) To compete, the students had to spend time preparing to answer questions from judges when they did not know the questions in advance. They had to try to predict what would be asked and prepare as well as they could. They had to answer some portions of the questions with their personal views, which meant that they had to morph their research into their personal thoughts. For my Modern World History class, I am asking them to prepare presentations on a revolution that spawned from the French Revolution. They will present their information and answer questions from the class at the end of this project, as well as listen to the presentations of other students and provide feedback and discussion. This is a lower-level of thought than what I asked the US Government class to do with We The People, but will be an important step in helping teach students vital presentation and question-answer skills. 

US Government 6th hour class
in Jefferson City, MO
Let me say here that I do not think that an authentic assessment should replace a traditional assessment. I am of the belief that traditional assessments still play a role in the classroom and can be a great tool for the teacher to use. One of my colleagues in the social studies department and I talk a lot about the difference between teaching skills and content. Traditional assessments can do a really good job of assessing content knowledge if the assessment is quality. This colleague and I both believe that the more lasting lessons that we teach are the skills that extend beyond the social studies content. Presentations, answering questions, critiquing and working as a team all are skills that we hope to each in our classrooms. Traditional assessments fall short in assessing these skills. To have a full and complete class, the teacher needs to foster a balance between traditional and authentic assessment. 

It is that traditional assessments are unauthentic. It is simply that they play a single role in the educational process but they do not satisfy the entire spectrum of student needs. Authentic assessments fill in many of the holes in assessments that are left gaping by traditional multiple choice and short answer assessments. Students cannot really own a test. They could own We The People. I told the classes as they were preparing to compete that they were going to get as much out of the experience as they put into it. They could work their butts off and find that they product that they created was above their own expectations. With only a few exceptions, the students bought into this and went deeper into the content precisely because they were focused on mastering the skill. 


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