George Lucas Educational Foundation

School Of The Future

Grades 6-8 | New York City, NY

Ten Takeaway Tips for Using Authentic Assessment in Your School

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Boy in suit studying at a table
Eleventh grader Elijah Short preparing for college.

The School of the Future's (SOF) mission is to empower each and every student. Teachers accomplish this not only by making their classroom content and instruction engaging but also by making their assessments authentic.

Teachers ask SOF students to demonstrate their comprehension and mastery of the curriculum in ways that are meaningful to them. This goes beyond getting the "right" answers on tests. At SOF, students develop the learning skills and habits of mind that are essential in the classroom -- and the rest of their lives. Here are ten tips to help you use authentic assessment in your school.


1. Break Down Skill Work into Small Steps

Authentic assessment can seem overwhelming at first. Take little steps such as collecting data one day a week, analyzing it, and using the results to group students for the next week. Use a goal-setting sheet with other teachers and lay out short- and long-term plans to achieve those goals. Develop a system to track learning that works for you. Set time limits for collecting and analyzing data so you don't set the bar too high for yourself.

2. Build a Community of Practice

Authentic assessment can be deeply rewarding for everyone involved, but it does take time and effort and can be demanding on teachers. It should not become overwhelming, however. Teachers can work together to create dedicated common planning time for sharing their strategies, challenges, and eureka moments. School leaders should join the meetings as often as possible to help strengthen teacher community. (Talk to others who care about assessment in Edutopia's Assessment Group.)


3. Work Backwards

SOF teachers design their concluding summative assessments first. These assessments are based on what the teachers would like the students to ultimately show as a demonstration of their learning. The teachers then create lessons and smaller-scale formative assessments that will help students build toward those final assessments. Teachers approach units as ongoing works-in-progress, which culminate in a project or presentation. While students are deep in the grip of researching, writing, editing, building, and creating, teachers are observing and questioning student progress all along the way, constantly and organically doing assessments to discover students' grasp of the material.

4. Have Fun

Authentic assessments engage students when they are fun and interesting, so try to think of entertaining ways to approach your content. In one humanities class at SOF, students dress like ancient Egyptians and put on a play to demonstrate they are learning the content. In physics, they build a catapult to learn about velocity and acceleration.


5. Ensure Rigor

You can be creative with authentic assessments, but you still have to base your assessments on the standards you are teaching. Develop rubrics that will show you exactly what your students are learning. Share these rubrics with your students so they’ll have a clear idea of what you want them to accomplish and how you expect them to demonstrate it.

6. Give Cards a Try

Simple index cards or Post-it notes are a great way to get a snapshot of where your students are in their learning. Ask students to answer one or two questions on a card or Post-it on the way into class as a warm-up activity, on the way out of class, or as a homework assignment. You can then quickly review the cards to get a lot of helpful information to guide your instruction.


7. Tap into Students' Interests

Children are passionate about so many things. Tapping into students' interests is one way to get useful assessment data and to help students take ownership of and deepen their own learning. At SOF, kids who love video games study projectile motion in the online game World of Warcraft. Students who enjoy art and creative writing create graphic novels about the book Persepolis. The students' own interests get the ball rolling and open them up to a variety of ongoing and authentic assessment techniques.

8. Use Tasks on Demand

There is no one simple diagnostic tool that tells the whole story, so try a number of strategies to get a more well-rounded picture of your students. Tasks on demand, or TODs, are a powerful way to get a snapshot of student comprehension. TODs are quick in-class assessments given without warning and without any scaffolding or help. The goal of a TOD is to determine if students can actually apply the knowledge they've been learning. One way to make TODs more rigorous is to give students problems with incorrect answers and then ask them to explain why they are wrong.

9. DYO: Do Your Own Assessments

Set aside time for the kids to reflect and write about their own progress. Let them explain their process and approach to a certain skill as well as their opinion on the current unit, text, or concept. How they are thinking about the concept is as important and revealing as their ability to give a "right" answer. Students' ownership of their own learning is at the core of authentic assessment.

10. Use a Variety of Tracking Tools

There are a variety of low- and high-tech tools that can help teachers track their students' progress. Technology lovers use applications like Easy Grade Pro to track particular skills. Others prefer a more traditional approach and use pen and paper, tables, or spreadsheets to chart student progress at any given time. The most important thing is to find what works for you and to look at tracking as part of the whole assessment process.


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Comments (12) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Regina Schaffer's picture
Regina Schaffer
Instructional Technology Specialist

A few years ago my district set out to "increase the rigor" in the middle school language arts curriculum. Many teachers and admin were weary and looked at it as yet another reform/program, but when we looked at what was occurring, the subsequent data and the middle school language arts landscape, indeed an increase was what was warranted. Our students were reading two novels a year (these are grades 6-8) with summer reading optional. So in that instance an increase in the number of novels students read has increased the rigor and reading levels across the board. Now I teach history, for our department, increasing the rigor has meant quality, not quantity. Our PBLs are now inquiry based and linked to standards, have 21st century skills woven in and are relevant to the students lives. It has been more work for the teachers and students but the outcomes are worth it...

Robert Ryshke's picture
Robert Ryshke
Executive Director of Center for Teaching

Thanks for the 10 tips on using assessment in meaningful and productive ways to advance student achievement. Your 10 tips make sense and I will share them with people at the Center for Teaching as well. Thank you!

Bob Ryshke
Center for Teaching

Andy S's picture

Agree with the jokes about "rigor". The other one that kills me when applied to students - "accountability."

As you see in the description above, "rigor" at SOF means emphasizing the achievement of challenging and important outcomes. We've tried to develop past the point of impressing visitors with "such engaged students and so articulate!" to get at the idea that engaged and articulate students must still work hard to achieve the excellence possible in clearly defined domains. In other words, the achievement of friendly and trusting learning communities discussing interesting ideas does NOT suffice.

Also we got rid of the couches when "rigor" became a priority. : )

Jen's picture
Curriculum Coordinator - Southwest MN

I appreciated this blog for several reasons. It provided specifics on how to go about taking those first steps toward authentic formative assessments. Yes, it may sound like 'more work' (and even some educators have commented on this blog to that truth), but once you have harnessed the power of formative assessments and have moved beyond the dating stage (nervous, unsure, experimenting) with it, the benefits will allow everyone to reach new heights with student achievement. Don't most things that are worth it take more time? I would hope that my doctor would take the time needed to assess, identify, and solve my physical issues. I know it's taken large amounts of time to cast, rehearse, and produce an impressive theatrical production. There's a reason why the food from McDonald's tastes barely edible some days (sans their fries) - because it requires very little time to prepare. Formative assessments do take more time, but the benefits are worth it. It's impressive to read about this crucial component to teaching on so many different blogs and in countless educational journals. 10 Takeaways provides educators with a strong beginning to using formative assessments effectively. Thank you!

Jeannele's picture

Thank Edutopia for this information on assessments. I have been told that I will be teaching a significant number of at-risk students. It is my intent to implement some the strategies into my lesson plans. I really want my students to be successful.

Kellie's picture

Thanks for the 10 tips! I agree that if this is a new concept for some it is going to take some time but it is worth it. I'm going to try some of these tips this coming year and will also share them with my team.

Andy S's picture

Hi Kellie, Jeannette, and Jen,

Thanks for letting us know that this helped!

One further suggestion to make the 10 Tips more helpful - PRIORITIZE. Figure out which skills/content matters most to you and then create a sharp focus on that particular skill/content with the serious cycle (diagnostics --> lesson plans --> differentiation --> targeted "tasks on demand"/formative assessments --> remediation, extension, enrichment --> re-assessment and documentation of progress and what worked). At SOF, for the upcoming year, we're going to prioritize argumentative writing from the Common Core - so we're working out cross-disciplinary and cross-grade synergies around that topic. But even if you're just doing your own thing in your own classroom focusing on what matters most will keep you from going crazy trying to assess progress on 37 different domains.

I really liked Perkins' "Making Learning Whole" to inform our thinking about deciding what matters most. He advocates that we prioritize the overlap in what matters most in terms of the discipline you're studying, society, personal significance, and the "charisma" (or fascination) of the topic. So I'm thinking of helping my students organize a conference on strengthening families - this will give them the chance to practice argumentative writing in a context that matters to the social sciences, our communities, their own lives, and about a topic that they care a lot about but perhaps haven't thought about as a matter for agency.

Perkins also advises that we let students practice a "junior game" version of real work - and for us teachers the junior game version will be tracking one or a few skills/content areas rather than all of them at once.

Mary Anne Lock's picture

Excellent advice! I intend to use this post with a small group of teachers for reflective study. I particularly appreciate the comments regarding " do your own assessments." I believe we truly learn the most about our students from listening to their conversations and reading their reflections. No prepackaged assessments can give us that important information about student process and thinking.

Loved all tips! Thanks for the post!

melinstaedt's picture
Kindergarten Teacher from ND

I like the idea of taking authentic assessment one day or one week at a time. Collecting data on students can be overwhelming and time consuming so doing a little bit at a time is a great piece of advice for those that are just starting out or even for the beginning of the school year.

The task cards and post its would be a good way to build up your assessments and questions that you would like to ask your students each year. You could laminate the cards and then by adding the post it you aren't doing any damage to the cards so they couldn't be used again.

The last thing that stuck out to use with my students is the using the tasks on demands, but with giving the students the wrong answer. I could see myself using this with my kindergarteners towards the end of the year with math number stories. Having them explain to me and their classmates why the answer is wrong is a great way to see the learning that is taking place for them as well as the progress they have made in the school year.

Martin Richards's picture
Martin Richards
I train educators to use a coaching approach in their teaching practice

It's now October 2013 and I see that I am writing response number 12 to the initial posting in January 2011.

I'm disappointed, and a little put off. Why aren't there THOUSANDS of responses? Certainly the article deserves such a huge and positve response. Where IS everyone?

No, I want to change my question. "What does it take to get a thousand responses?" If only 10% read and respond, and 10% of those put the Ten Takeaways into action, at least that will be ten more teachers who apply authentic assessment at least once. If my maths is correct.

At least I can say what I shall do.

From today, and every month for the next six months I will sing the praises of Edutopia to everyone I know on facebook and linkedin (because that's where I get most connection with people).

What will YOU do?

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