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Authentic assessment in today's classrooms: Two teachers' perspectives

This blog was co-authored by Ohio educators Ashli Breit and Cheryl Bledsoe. Ashli is a 6th grade ELA and Social Studies teacher at Lake Middle School. Cheryl is a 6th grade ELA teacher and gifted intervention specialist at Lake Middle School. She has provided professional development as a presenter at technology conferences, and integrates technology daily into the classroom. 

 

Why authentic assessment?

The pressures of high-stakes testing today add stress and worry to already-busy educators. Authentic assessment provides valuable information to teachers and students, and this information is then used to create an appropriate learning path. Our classroom goal is teaching real-world application skills; authentic assessment meets the goal.  

Each year, we do a nonfiction unit using Jim Murphy's text The Great Fire (Great Chicago Fire), with school fire code connections. Our superintendent created a video advising students that new school construction would use 90-year-old fire codes. The essential question guides research toward a culminating argument product: a response video detailing types of fires codes needed in our new building.  

Difficult material was made applicable to today's students, addressing several skills in authentic tasks: research skills (two eras of fire codes), and argument skills (video).

All these life skills can be applied to many situations, while assessing understanding of the text and unit concepts.

Too often, students succeed on traditional assessments by guessing well or discerning the writing 'formula' for maximum scores. However, they may not be able to expand on that information or clearly explain concepts tested. Ask those same kids to teach the topic, create a video lesson, informative poster or website, and you will get a clearer picture of true understanding.  

Challenges

Several possible challenges are faced in shifting toward performance-based assessment.  

  • Students may have difficulty taking the assessments seriously and putting forth best efforts. Response: students will have voice and choice in learning and products as long as they are putting forth effort. Students sometimes ask, "When is the test on this?" Faces light up when told their project is the test.  Units begin with a discussion about goals and expected learning. As products are chosen, they are reminded of those goals and encouraged to demonstrate their learning.  
  • Parents may question assessment validity and whether it truly demonstrates understanding. Response: parents should talk to their children about what they are learning and how skills can be applied in other areas of life. One parent had concerns that a movie analysis was used for assessment. I clarified it was part of a culminating activity about overcoming adversities, and learning taken from the movie would be applied in the final product.  When the digital portfolio was shared, she then understood the big picture.
  • Administrators may not see the benefits, possibly viewing the method as chaotic. Response: invite administrators into the classroom to watch the process and talk to kids about what is occurring. Often students are the best defense against criticism. A creative idea is having students create a pitch (their choice of medium) to sell the unit to future generations. They love giving highlights about the unit, student expectations and sometimes include warnings or 'make sure you do...' These are great to share with administrators and parents.

Student role in the process

Student voice and choice is important, mirroring much of what we face in adulthood.  For example, as adults we choose books to read and how to share with others. However, just as adults do not always have total freedom, authentic assessment in classrooms has some 'must do' items and 'can do' items, all reflecting true understanding of material. Student investment in the process is important to its success.  

A great example of authentic assessment is using choice boards for reading comprehension assessments, explaining to students these projects are a large part of their reading grade. We present this to students as a teacher-created website listing options and requirements, including 15 project choices. The choices address a variety of interests and learning styles (student choice), while including grammar expectations and a written component (teacher requirements).

Authentic assessment is what teachers desire: a true understanding of the impact they are making on student learning.

The result has been greater enthusiasm and interest in reading that is not developed when using a multiple-choice test. Students are not rushing, cheating, or ignoring Accelerated Reading requirements, now looking forward to choosing their books and sharing what they learned. Many projects get submitted early so the next one can be started. I love the shift to authentic assessment, especially with growing excitement in the reading classroom, demonstrated by 100% participation in the projects (versus 45-50% with previous reading assessments).

We take student suggestions for product types, and will 'negotiate' for something attractive to the learner, while still being true to what is being measured. For example, one of my students with fine motor difficulty really wanted to create a movie poster. He developed an online version of the poster including all required elements, as well as interactive features for the audience. The student was thrilled his physical needs were met, and he produced quality work. Other students loved it so much they asked to have it added as an option for everyone.  Collaborative learning is wonderful! The benefits included:

  • authentic assessment of text comprehension
  • student creative design of product
  • class exposure to new technology features

Special education students can also benefit from these choices. These students often feel unsuccessful with traditional assessments. Allowing them choice in demonstrating understanding, gives them a chance to show mastery of standards in a way they are comfortable with. One student I am working with has sixth grade reading scores in the first percentile. He struggles to express himself in writing, often shutting down when asked to write. Giving the option to draw has allowed him to demonstrate understanding in a way he is comfortable with. He feels successful with assignments when given choice in how he expresses his knowledge. This not only helps the teacher get a better understanding of student abilities, it also builds the students’ self-confidence.

All assessments should be used to guide and direct instruction within the classroom. As educators, we want to understand our students' level of understanding so we can differentiate products for our students. Authentic assessment is what teachers desire: a true understanding of the impact they are making on student learning. We should embrace that model and bring learning alive in the classroom!

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Cheryl and Ashli’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.

2 Comments

Rob Kriete commented on November 16, 2017 at 3:03pm:

Choices

Ashli and Cheryl-

Great piece!  I appreciate how you emphasize the choices given to students.  THe choices made by students can often give teachers feedback.  For example, after reading challenging texts in my high school English classes, I often give students choices of questiosn to be answered that are aligned to the standards.Their choices, and non-choices, offer me feedback in areas they have confidence and areas that need some more direct instruction.

Bravo!  Thanks for sharing your experiences.

Tricia Ebner commented on November 18, 2017 at 7:22am:

Ponderings . . .

Authentic assessment certainly has many advantages. For example, the capability of making adjustments (like what you describe in the situation with the student drawing vs. writing). The flexibility seems like it is the perfect tool to use in supporting differentiation. Yet authentic assessment doesn't seem to be used as often as it could (or should) be. What do you think makes is something so many are reluctant to embrace? 

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