Some Brief Thoughts on Assessment: Authentic and Otherwise

While participating in a recent discussion thread, the topic of assessment with particular attention focused on  alternatives to traditional tests.In the discussion there was a heavy emphasis on “authentic” assessment, which has become one of the great buzzwords of educationalese that has seeped into general conversation in our profession. Some of the articles and comments that were entered into the mix wound me up a bit, which happens from time to time. So here are some broad thoughts on the topic with more likely to surface, eventually.

First,  I feel as though the word “authentic” has been euphemized to the point of uselessness. Moreover, I take great issue with the implicit assumption in a lot of “authentic” assessment rhetoric that somehow school somehow lies outside the “real world.” I don’t know about everyone else, but I show up to work at a school daily, and it is pretty firmly located in the real world, as far as I can tell, and a lot of others seem to be there too.

To suggest that schoolwork is somehow de facto inauthentic is both insulting and demeaning to everyone that works in education or at least ought to be. Never mind that the liberal arts kind of education most high schools are designed to facilitate is simply neither primarily vocational nor meant to be training for some job that a student might pursue. Nevertheless, this does not meant that tasks, assessments, or experiences cannot have practical applicability in the world beyond the walls of a school, but more often than not these efforts are fictions anyway. They often make an effort to appear or simulate the “authentic” or “real world” but are complete fabrications of the “real world,” wherever it is to be found. Service and vocational work is a different story altogether with different goals and aims. Still, there is something to be said for using aspects of professional work as an example of practices, whereby students may feel more motivation or educators might prove or justify the value of a particular task or learning goal(s).

Regardless, there are a lot of jobs that are subject to testing, which is not terribly dissimilar to the pencil-and-paper kinds that are used often in schools and serve as a basis for denigrating attacks. In fact, I would suggest that many of the tests that required in the adult world are actually worse offenders of the kind of stigma that is suggested of schools. I have personal and anecdotal evidence of professional testing preparations where it is common to hear, “This is what you need to know for the test, but this is how it works in reality.”

Plus, the original professions are laden with tests for admittance for education and entry into professional practice. Want to be a doctor, you have to take a test. Want to be a lawyer, you have to take a test. Well, not everyone can be a doctor or a lawyer, so how about some less prestigious work? Want to sell real estate, you have to take a test. Want to sell securities, you have to take a test. Don’t want to go to school anymore and plan to go into the military, get ready for enough tests to make your head spin, often without the benefit of a second chance to pass. For crying out loud, we all had to take multiple test just to become teachers, where wealth and esteem await! Truth is tests are a part of life – period. To pretend otherwise is not only foolish but dangerous.

Despite all of this, I rarely give tests as assessments, because most traditional testing methods show me what a student does not know, rather than what they do, which doesn’t seem the best way to get a sense of what or how much a student is actually learning, never mind the progress they have made. Moreover, tests are most often more focused on assessing content knowledge and are far poorer assessing skills, problem solving, creativity, methodology, process, or any of the other list of things that I think are ultimately more important to a person learning. Also, those intangible factors I began listing contribute far more to experiences students may have in actually doing work that is more instructive than anything I can provide alone as a teacher.

Lastly, I will mention something that I often say to students, which many are probably too young to understand but there are quite a few that do, “At the most fundamental level, self-assessment is really the only kind of assessment that matters.” Thus, I try to constantly guide students to reflect on their own performances and work, learning how to honestly gauge themselves in relation to the task, their natural abilities, work-ethic, learned skills, and more. I try to emphasize and honor the idea that assessment is ultimately not about me, at all. It is, in fact, truly all about them, individually within varying contexts, and that they must learn to know themselves in an “authentic” way.

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