Authentic Assessment Research Paper Starter

Authentic Assessment

(Research Starters)

This article focuses on how authentic assessment can provide a holistic evaluation of student achievement. Authentic assessment is credited with better preparing students for the working world than traditional assessment methods by encouraging the development of critical thinking and problem solving skills, as well as the integration of past and present learning across disciplines. The author outlines how teachers can implement authentic assessment in K-12 classrooms in addition to offering some thoughts about the future of the instrument in the wake of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

Keywords Authentic Assessment; Criterion-Referenced Test; Formative Assessment; High Stakes Testing; Higher-Order Skills; No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB); Norm-Referenced Test; Performance-Based Assessment; Portfolio; Reflection; Rubric; Standardized Tests; Student Evaluation; Summative Assessment; Test Bias; Traditional Assessment




Assessments have been used to evaluate student progress since Socrates' time, and as early as 200 B.C., China had its own version of the civil service examination (Worthen & Sanders, 1973, as cited in Cole, 1994). In the United States, Robert Thorndike's educational work in the early 1900s helped convince the country of the value of assessment, and throughout the 1920s and 1930s standardized testing began gaining popularity (Cole, 1994). During the 1970s, many states introduced minimum competency testing requirements for grade promotion, and in the 1980s states began implementing statewide testing programs. Some states used standardized testing to assess their students, while others contracted with test makers to develop tests intended to better match their state curriculum guidelines.

With so much testing being conducted, it was only a matter of time before the testing instruments themselves came under further scrutiny. Traditional, standardized types of assessment were criticized for involving limited tasks – such as reading and answering a multiple-choice item – and for testing only lower-level thinking skills; ignoring the need for students to develop real-life, higher-order skills. (Gomez, Graue & Block, 1991; Shepard, 1989, as cited in Cole, 1994). In response, beginning in the late 1980s, educators began considering authentic assessment as a viable alternative to standardized assessments. By the 1990s, states started to veer away from standardized tests and look toward assessing higher-level skills through authentic assessment, which reports success as the percentage of students at or above proficiency (Linn, 2005).


Authentic assessment, also called performance based assessment, is designed to help students participate actively in real-life tasks and problem solving to teach them skills which they will be able to use throughout their lives (Darling-Hammond, 1997, as cited in Moon, Brighton, Callahan & Robinson, 2005). Authentic assessment requires students to use their prior knowledge, recent learning, and relevant skills to complete complex, real-world projects. By tying classroom material to real-life situations, authentic assessment can help answer the question, "Why do we have to learn this?" The best type of authentic assessment evaluates not just how well students memorize materials, but how well they apply what they learn. Authentic assessments essentially re-create what students will encounter when they enter the working world by informing them about a task beforehand and allowing them to prepare for it by working on mastering the necessary competencies (Wiggins, 1990). Forms of authentic assessment can include debates, simulations, presentations, or demonstrations (Cheek, 1993; Dana & Tippins, 1993; Reed, n.d., as cited in Moon et al., 2005).

Effective authentic assessments engage students in a context and, more specifically, they:

• Focus on essential content

• Focus on concepts rather than specialized skills

• Are in-depth

• Lead to students to other challenges and questions

• Are capable of producing a quality product or service instead of just one correct answer

• Focus on what students know and further the growth of student knowledge base and skills

• Are comprised of criteria that students understand and agree upon before the project begins

• Allow students to demonstrate competency in multiple ways

• Are designed to allow many points of view and analyses

• Are scored based on the essence of the task rather than correct answers (Dana & Tippins, 1993, as cited in Moon et al., 2005).


Authentic assessment encourages students to apply what they learn across different subjects. Writing, for example, can easily be integrated into many subject areas. If mathematics instructors require students to provide written explanations of how they solved a problem, instructors can more accurately evaluate a student's mathematical abilities. With an explanation, they can see how well a student understands key concepts, rather than rely on whether or not the student simply got the right answer. Literature instructors can also use authentic assessment to help students understand the importance of setting, character development, and comparison and contrast of classic and modern story plots. Students' written responses to a text can help determine whether they have derived meaning from a text, which is something that more traditional multiple-choice assessments cannot do (Chapman, 1990).

Authentic assessment tasks are also open ended, meaning that they can be solved through multiple approaches, mirroring what students will encounter later in life (Reed, 1993, as cited in Moon et al., 2005). In order to actively engage them in learning, assignments should be relevant and meaningful to students. By enabling students to discover multiple solutions or interpretations to a project, authentic assessment may also help keep the performance gap among differing cultures at bay, as well as eliminate testing bias (Moon et al., 2005).

Authentic assessment uses graduated ratings and structured observation checklists to record the extent to which children display desired behaviors. Graduated ratings are multi-level designations meant to provide a more accurate measure of student mastery than traditional assessments. Terms such as 'Always,' 'Sometimes,' 'Occasionally,' and 'Rarely' or 'Mastery,' 'Performs Most of the Time,' 'Beginning to Perform,' or 'Does Not Perform' pinpoint the students' skill levels in a much more specific manner than simple terms like 'Yes' and 'No' or 'Does' and 'Does Not' (Bagnato & Hsiang, 2006).

Researchers have also demonstrated that data culled from multiple sources, settings, and occasions provide a more accurate assessment of young children's capabilities and needs than standardized assessments, making them especially helpful in evaluating children with developmental needs (Bagnato & Neisworth, 1994; Suen, Logan, Neisworth, & Bagnato, 1995, as cited in Bagnato & Hsiang, 2006).

Authentic vs. Traditional Assessment

Additionally, authentic assessment can be an effective tool for evaluating young students' functional behavior in their everyday environments. Traditional testing may not accurately evaluate young students if an unfamiliar adult administers the test, test demands are unrealistic, or if norm-referenced tests are used to rank students rather than individually evaluate their abilities. The holistic approach of authentic assessment is particularly important to instructors of students with special needs, because instructors need to have a clear understanding of what their students can and cannot do in order provide suitable instruction. Since authentic assessment allows students to exhibit different points of view and different problem solving approaches, authentic assessment can be more accommodating than standardized testing which requires that all testing be conducted in a uniform manner. Additionally, students with significant difficulties are generally excluded from the standardization sample; if the assessment does not accommodate for differences, students are penalized and results can be inaccurate. (Neisworth & Bagnato, 2004).

Authentic assessment and traditional assessment differ...

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