Authentic assessment is somewhat like singing for your supper. You sing poorly, you don’t eat; you sing marginally well, you get pasta; you sing very well, you get steak; you sing superbly, you win a Grammy.
Authentic assessment is measurement through performance and/or demonstration of a relevant intellectual task. It does not involve making a choice between five potential answers; rather it involves actually showing and demonstrating what you know and using a measuring stick called a rubric to assign a grade.
The definition I like best for authentic assessment was given by Mr. Grant Wiggins, a researcher and consultant on school reform issues, almost a generation ago:
“Assessment is authentic when we directly examine student performance on worthy intellectual tasks. Traditional assessment, by contract, relies on indirect or proxy ‘items’–efficient, simplistic substitutes from which we think valid inferences can be made about the student’s performance at those valued challenges.”(Wiggins, Grant (1990). The case for authentic assessment. Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation, 2(2).)
That definition applies still today.
The trouble with authentic assessment, however, is that it is hard to do; it involves manual labor; the individual doing the assessment must actually spend time watching the student demonstration and then must make a judgment regarding the level of performance against an accepted rubric.
The principal arguments against authentic assessment are as follows:
• Authentic assessment takes too much time; more can be tested in less time with standardized multiple choice tests;
• Authentic assessment is less reliable even with a set rubric;
• Authentic assessment is vulnerable against validity threats;
• Authentic assessment is expensive.
These arguments weighed heavily in the demise of the performance-based assessment movement in the 1990s. Those arguments may still be made today and present challenges to advocates of performance-based or authentic assessment.
Advocates of authentic assessment point to the continuity between teaching to the authentic test and learning as opposed to teaching to the standardized test and learning. Better learning takes place when teachers prepare students for authentic tests.
Advocates also point out that authentic assessment can provide a more comprehensive evaluation of a student’s learning as opposed to the multiple choice examination.
The debate is still heating up because of the implementation of the Common Core Standards and the upcoming assessment processes that will follow. Indeed, some states have opted out of the Common Core Standards for a variety of reasons – one of which is the issue of assessment.
On balance, I’m a supporter of authentic assessment because the authentic approach does give a more accurate assessment of what a student actually knows than does a multiple choice test; further, any sort of assessment system that might be used to measure the performance of a school or teachers can always be gamed – i.e., teachers can teach to the test or simply cheat. If teaching to the test is going to be done, then I believe that teaching to an authentic assessment test enables a student to learn more than teaching toward the standardized multiple choice test. Where the debate will end up is anyone’s guess, but wherever that might be, it is my hope that the process of teaching and learning will include the critical skills and not just the development of skills to be able to choose between choice 1 through choice 5.
An excellent way to visualize how authentic assessment may be conducted is to use a work-based learning example. During the School-to-Work era in the 1990s, I created a software system that enabled work-based learning coordinators to create position descriptions – alternatively called work-based learning agreements – for participating students. The system would also create an authentic assessment document for that particular student performing the tasks and projects as described in the work-based learning agreement.
The following example shows the work-based learning agreement (job description) for a student who is participating as a team member to conduct a Field Study. His roll is to serve as a Field Study Research Assistant.
Note that in this position description the jobs/tasks are action oriented – written is such as was as to direct a student toward actually doing something instead of just describing some sort of learning goal. An essential feature of this and any other work-based learning agreement is that each of the job tasks/project connects to one or more of the critical skills. There MUST be some sort of connection between what the student is doing and what the student is supposed to be learning; otherwise, why should the student be doing something that has no learning outcome?
Note that the assessment document has a rubric that defines what the level of assessment is in terms of level of performance. This rubric, of course, may be changed to suit the needs of any specific school district. The assessment document also has an assessment feature for what this particular school calls “Workplace Essentials.” These “Workplace Essentials” can be easily changed by the school district, as appropriate.
The Student as a “Learner”
Visualize the academic classroom for a moment and focus on a specific student. That student is sitting in the classroom voluntarily, with the expectation of doing classwork and homework, with the expectation of eventually receiving some sort of grade for the course at the end of a semester. Putting this another way, the student has a job in a classroom as a learner, and at the end of the work assignment (course), he/she will receive compensation in the form of a grade.
This is a bit radical, I will admit, and perhaps offensive to some to consider students as having “jobs” as “learners;” but that is the simple reality. Each student has agreed (voluntarily or not) to spend time in each classroom and has agreed to learn what is being taught and tested on his/her knowledge.
Like it or not, that is a JOB. The student has a “Job” as a “Learner.”
If this is the case, then we can treat any student’s classroom experience as we would treat a work-based learning situation. We assign a student a “job” as a learner in a specific class; we then create a “Learning Agreement” which is, in reality, a “Job Description” for that particular class and consists of specific projects and tasks which a student is expected to do and on which he/she will be expected to demonstrate competency through actual performance.
These projects/tasks for a specific course may be created directly from academic content standards – whether or not a state has implemented the Common Core Standards or whatever other state approved standards might have been created.
In order to facilitate the creation of such learning agreements, I created a simple software program in the 1990s called “IS2000” for “Instructional Strategies 2000.” This application worked essentially the same way as the work-based learning software in that it contained a database of the students, a database of specific courses, and a database of specific tasks and assignments that were created directly from the academic content standards.
The software then created the “Learning Agreements” which were very similar to work-based learning agreements and then the authentic assessment documents as well.
The curriculum requirements for this specific unit are defined, and the assignments/projects are written in action oriented format.
This is a simple example of a learning agreement that assumes the student has a “job” as a learner in an academic classroom and will be expected to perform the tasks and projects as articulated in the agreement. He/she agrees to be assessed based on his/her performance in conducting these assignments.
I am quite aware that calling a student a “learner” and admitting that he/she has a “job” as a learner is a bit radical – BUT, it is reality. Such learning agreements are quite easy to create and simply document in a clear and understandable format what is actually taking place in the academic classroom . . . . or SHOULD be taking place in that setting if we are serious about connecting what students are supposed to be learning with academic content standards – whatever the source.