Authentic Assessment: A Key Part of Instruction

August 29, 2006

Over the course of my eighteen years as a teacher, one of my biggest challenges was assessing whether students had really mastered the content or whether they had simply memorized the information. It wasn't until I started teaching in a health-careers academy that I was able to determine whether students understood the subject matter. Students who could take the knowledge and skills and apply that knowledge to the medical field had mastered the content. Authentic assessment, or performance assessment, became key in my instruction.

What is authentic assessment? It shows what the student is learning, how the student is learning it, and the quality of the understanding over time. No pen-and-paper test can match this. Giving students a multiple-choice test is like assessing New York Yankees center fielder Johnny Damon's baseball skills by asking him to complete one about the sport. We might find out about his knowledge of the facts of baseball, but we would not be able to measure his level of playing skill.

Authentic assessment helped me develop clear goals about what students know, understand, and do as a result of the instruction versus textbook knowledge. It required me to redirect my teaching from what to how and to involve students in real work. Authentic assessment resulted in a tangible product with a verified purpose. For example, my teaching was more focused on showing students how to research a medical procedure than on diagramming sentences. I had to integrate the curriculum, because real-world issues or activities are seldom limited to one content area.

I also used authentic assessment as a motivational strategy, as students view relevant activities in more positive manner. There is rarely one correct answer with authentic assessment, so I emphasized standards and criteria.

Authentic assessment is much more difficult to create than more traditional methods. The following questions were my guidelines:

  • Does it measure what it says it measures?
  • Are the standards clear?
  • Are the criteria explicit?
  • Does it relate to local, state, or national goals?
  • Is the scoring system based on identified standards and criteria?
  • Does the assessment show degrees of excellence?

Here are some tips for developing authentic assessments:

  • Design the curriculum backward from the assessment.
  • Evaluate along the way using benchmarks.
  • Give students time to revise after self-assessment and peer assessment.
  • Continually adjust your assessment tools.
  • Be innovative to improve assessment.

Authentic assessment promotes content mastery and high-quality performance. Authentic assessment is more difficult and less efficient than conventional testing, but I think it's worth the time and effort required for careful and thoughtful development, because it evaluates what students can do with knowledge in context.

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