Authentic assessment enables educators to determine students’ skills, knowledge, and competencies and to provide evidence of their learning. Utilizing a variety of performance-based measures, complex rubrics, and real-world tasks, authentic assessment encourages greater understanding of concepts in a meaningful context. Developed in response to the rote memorization and less complex assessments of objective measurements such as multiple-choice tests, which have been traditionally employed in education, authentic assessment provides a more engaging and effective way to measure students’ learning while promoting understanding and valuing the process of learning. This entry looks at how the process developed and how it works.
How It Developed
In the 1990s, renewed interest in holding public education accountable led state legislatures and the U.S. government to require ongoing and in-depth testing at various points in students’ educational careers. Performance-based funding initiatives in states across the nation ensured that testing would become standardized in an attempt to homogenize the curricula and the depth and breadth of student learning in various disciplines. Proponents of mandatory standardized testing also endeavored to create normalized benchmarks of student competencies across school districts and state lines in the nation.
Teachers soon discovered that standardized testing did not engender the in-depth understanding that their students would need for lifelong learning. Grant Wiggins, a former secondary school English and philosophy teacher, has been at the forefront of the authentic assessment movement for the past twenty years. In his 1993 book, Assessing Student Performance: Exploring the Purpose and Limits of Testing, Wiggins challenged the morality of standardized testing and multiple-choice tests, which involve discrete and simple facts and assess student learning on a superficial level of understanding. Wiggins posed authentic assessment as an antidote to these less effective types of tests. Authenticity produces greater student achievement and learning while providing relevant, contextual, real-world applications of curricular concepts that incorporate problem-solving and critical thinking skills.
Wiggins also has suggested that to design appropriate assessments, teachers need clearly defined curricular goals; then, they can figure out what to assess and what data they need to do so. In 1998, Wiggins and coauthor Jay McTighe further developed this idea in Understanding by Design, which employs “backwards design” in curriculum and assessment planning. This design encourages teachers to determine the results they seek, then identify appropriate evidence of those results. After completing the steps, teachers plan learning activities and determine instructional methods. Ultimately, teachers establish “curricular priorities” based on their instructional objectives regarding three levels of knowledge, including material “worth being familiar with,” followed by knowledge “important to know and do.”
The ultimate goal, Wiggins and McTighe have suggested, is that teaching will lead to “enduring understanding,” whereby students are able to absorb more in-depth knowledge, producing performances or exhibiting critical thinking skills that exceed in quality the products of traditional instructional experiences. A focus on enduring understanding stresses ideas, principles, and processes rather than simple facts, ensuring that students are able to apply their knowledge in new ways and in different contexts.
How It Works
Teachers design successful authentic experiences when students employ a complex array of critical thinking and problem-solving skills that involve independent research, analysis, and application of knowledge. Students engaged in applying knowledge in new and meaningful ways are expected to achieve enduring understanding, a characteristic of authentic assessment.
Authentic assessment focuses on contextual learning in an environment that fosters inquiry and enduring understanding using evidence collected by the teacher in ongoing evaluations of student learning. The evidence of authentic learning involves documenting performances and products developed during a unit or over a period of time, which may include observations, dialogues, and students’ self-evaluations. To employ authentic assessment methods, teachers design open-ended, complex assignments.
As Wiggins and McTighe have noted, these tasks and projects replicate issues and challenges faced by adults in real life and include short-term tasks as well as longer and more complex projects requiring performances and production. Characteristics of performance tasks and projects include a real or simulated setting, a targeted audience, a specific purpose that has meaning or is of importance to the audience, the personalization of the students’ experiences, and the “task, criteria, and standards” for students before and during the learning activities.
Further, Wiggins and McTighe have explored the various qualities of authentic assessment in six levels of understanding. They have suggested that students who truly understand concepts are able to explain, interpret, apply, see in perspective, demonstrate empathy, and reveal self-knowledge, with clearly defined criteria for performance and production. As Wiggins explained in Assessing Student Performance, authenticity is thus characterized by intellectually challenging learning experiences that require students to be creative and that involve and engage them with worthwhile problems and questions. Other examples of authentic assessment include contextual learning, which replicates real-life situations or employs actual problems that require students to apply a repertoire of skills and knowledge that lead to a sound judgment or an effective solution.
Students who engage in tasks that require the development and creation of an actual artifact or product according to pre-established criteria and standards are providing evidence of authentic assessment. In addition, such assessment involves interactions between teachers and students about the evaluation process itself and provides students with opportunities to justify responses and to explain further through follow-up questions and challenges that allow for feedback, correction, and improvement. These projects and performances also increase students’ engagement with both the process and the product, ensuring that students have greater motivation and responsibility for their learning and teachers get feedback in order to design ever more effective tools for evaluating them.
Ultimately, authentic assessment provides students with enduring understanding in a meaningful context that replicates the experiences of living in a complex, ever-changing society. In this way, as Wiggins and his colleague have suggested, authentic assessment prepares students to negotiate the challenges of everyday life, the complex world of careers and work, and the diverse needs of individuals and societies both now and in the future.
- Burke, K. (2005). How to assess authentic learning (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Darling-Hammond, L., Ancess, J., & Falk, B. (1995). Authentic assessment in action: Studies of schools and students at work. New York: Teachers College Press.
- Wiggins, G. (1993). Assessing student performance: Exploring the purpose and limits of testing. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Wiggins, G. (1993). Educative assessment: Designing assessments to inform and improve student performance. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
- University of Wisconsin-Stout School of Education Online Assessment Resources for Teachers: http://www.uwstout.edu/soe/profdev/assess.shtml
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