Authentic assessment for authentic learning

Dr. Brooke Morgan serves as Coordinator for Instructional Technology in the Talladega County School System. Dr. Morgan has over 14 years of experience in school/district administration in the areas of Federal Programs, Assessment, and STEAM. She is the recipient of the 2015 Marbury Technology Innovation Administrator Award given by the Alabama State Department of Education and the 2015 Outstanding Curriculum Leader Award given by the Alabama Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Several years ago, it became evident that if we were to equip our students with the skills needed to be successful in college and in the workforce, a shift in instructional and assessment methods was needed. For this reason, Talladega County Schools embarked on a new instructional framework, Project Based Learning (PBL), to provide students with authentic, collaborative learning experiences. Our goals for implementing Project-Based Learning (PBL) included the following:

  • Improving the 4 C’s (Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, Creativity)
  • Creating student-centered classrooms
  • Increasing engagement of students through real-world application
  • Creating self-directed learners
  • Improving leadership skills

Teachers and administrators participated in over 20 hours of training prior to implementation. An integral part of the training focused on school culture and teacher mindset — in order to create the self-sufficient student of tomorrow, we could no longer teach them in a traditional setting. Perhaps the biggest shift in mindset revolved around assessment. A summative, paper/pencil test at the end of a project/lesson would no longer adequately assess the content and skills included in the PBL. For teachers to be confident in student learning and growth, authentic assessments with checkpoints would need to be embedded throughout the four-six week project.

Early in our implementation, assessment emerged as our biggest challenge.  Our district team committed to the study of authentic assessments to address the following questions:

What does authentic assessment look like?

How can I document that students have mastered content?

What role should students play in assessment?

How can I assess success skills (teamwork, organization, time management)?

How can students showcase their learning in authentic ways?

Our district level training was two-fold. First, we focused on the various types of authentic assessment (discussion, quality questioning, rubrics, peer assessments, self-assessments, portfolios, observation/note taking, student end products, etc.) Second, we facilitated collaborative planning sessions for teacher leaders from each school. In these sessions, the members of this teacher leader cohort worked with peers to develop content specific PBLs with the following components:

  • Driving Question/Challenging Problem
  • Content Standards/Success Skills (time management, organization, work ethic, 4 C’s)
  • Assessment Measures for Content/Success Skills
  • Sustained Inquiry and Authenticity
  • Student Voice and Choice
  • Opportunities for Critique and Reflection
  • Public Product (presented to an authentic audience)

Administrators and teacher leaders used the knowledge gained from district training to engage teachers at their home schools in planning authentic learning and assessment experiences. Instructional rounds were conducted by administrators and lead teachers in each school to determine the impact of authentic assessments on student learning. Feedback was shared with building administrators to help guide follow-up professional learning opportunities.

Lessons Learned

Our shift toward more authentic assessments was an intensive process.  We learned many important lessons throughout our study and implementation. First, the culture of our schools had to shift from test-driven, teacher-centered to learning-driven, student-centered. A learning-driven, student-centered classroom looks and sounds entirely different from a teacher-centered classroom.  During instructional rounds, our focus was on what the students were doing. Were they engaged? Were they active in their own learning and assessment? The expectation was for the students to be engaged with content through TWIRL (talking, writing, investigating, reading, listening) and the teacher would act as facilitator. This was a big shift for some teachers who preferred to lecture and “own” their classroom. It also proved to be an adjustment for some administrators who typically judged teacher effectiveness by the noise level (or lack thereof) of his/her classroom.

Another lesson we learned is that our teacher leaders were crucial to the successful implementation of PBL and authentic assessment in our schools. We trained an average of 40 teacher leaders per year in our district in order to build leadership capacity in our schools. In addition to collaborating with administrators and other teacher leaders, the members of these teacher leadership cohorts supported classroom teachers at their base schools by:

  • Leading book studies
  • Modeling effective classroom instruction
  • Collaborative planning
  • Conducting peer observation with feedback

Most importantly, we have learned that by using authentic assessments, students are challenged and empowered in their learning. Through the use of checklists, rubrics, self-assessments, and individual end products, students have taken ownership of their own learning. Not only do they know the expectations before, during, and at the conclusion of a project/lesson, they know how to monitor their progress, as well as work collaboratively with peers through the critique and revision process. At the end of a PBL, students express voice and choice by demonstrating what they have learned through an authentic final product (exhibit, webpage, portfolio, documentary, podcast, brochure, etc.) Students present their final products to an authentic audience (outside of their classroom) and answer questions that others may have about their work and what they learned.

We have learned that by using authentic assessments, students are challenged and empowered in their learning.

Although PBL was the catalyst for our shift toward authentic assessment, we continue to learn and grow in the area of assessment. Our current instructional focus is on the incorporation of STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Art Math) across the curriculum with an emphasis on the engineering design process. We are currently designing authentic assessments to measure student proficiency of design thinking skills. Our ultimate goal is to ensure students are engaged in authentic learning experiences and can demonstrate meaningful application of key knowledge and skills necessary for success in the future. Developing authentic assessments to guide and monitor these experiences will ensure the continued success of our students.

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Brooke’s post is part of CTQ’s November/December blogging roundtable on authentic assessment. To join the conversation, comment on this blog and read the other blogs in this series. You can find an updated list of all posts on this page. Follow CTQ on Facebook and Twitter to see when each new blog is posted, and use #CTQCollab to join the conversation on social media.

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