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Authentic Assessment: Portfolios, Etc.


Q. What is meant by "authentic assessment"?


Good teachers have always evaluated student progress based on the way they carried out assignments and the "work products" they came up with. Good teachers have always used examples, models, games, demonstrations, experiments, hypothetical situations, skits, videos, dramas and all kinds of other teaching tools to gauge student progress.


But in the 1990s, the world of in-school assessment started shifting away from the No. 1 assessment tool - tests - and more strongly toward "authentic assessment" - just about everything else students do besides tests. Why? Because teachers felt it gave them a better idea of how well their students were doing.


The problem is obvious: subjective judgments can't be compared, so students and parents don't get useful feedback on how they're doing vs. other students similarly situated, and the electorate can't evaluate how well its public schools are doing.


It all started with Alfie Kohn. A writer and speaker on education, parenting and related topics, he is an outspoken foe of standardized testing. His books have contended that grades are bad, competition is wrong, and rewards and punishments of every kind should be gone from our schools. With massive popularity among teachers' unions and administrators, he sparked a backlash against traditional, objective school tests in the 1980s and '90s whose ripples are still being felt today.


He advised teachers to scrap tests and grades because they are "meaningless," and instead, suggested they should lead students to love learning for its own sake.


Even though parents, taxpayers and conservatives complained that subjective measurements of educational progress were meaningless in the way of providing accountability to the public, educators jumped on the bandwagon. They minimized traditional tests such as multiple choice, true/false, fill-in-the-blank and essays. They said it doesn't matter if we find out that students have mastered the information that the adults have presented to them; it's better, they said, if the students "construct" their own knowledge and interpret information their own way.


So educators adopted a system of "authentic assessment," in which the students do individual and group projects, presentations, videos, bulletin boards, speeches, paintings, plays, and other non-test demonstrations of what they know and can do. While it is true that hands-on activities such as math manipulatives (blocks and shapes) and experiments really do help speed learning more than plain old reading, writing and 'rithmetic can, there is no widely-accepted agreement that authentic assessment is reliable and valid enough to be adopted as the primary form of evaluating student progress.


The idea is that paper-and-pencil tests don't really show student progress as well as student-generated work does. Rather than test scores, homework grades and assignment evaluations, teachers put together a "portfolio" of each student's work to show how that student performed in the class.


The problem is, there is evidence that authentic assessment does not work nearly as well in the real world as teachers hoped. For example:


         There are vast amounts of inconsistency in what is acceptable work from class to class, and from year to year in the same class. That has given authentic assessment a bad reputation as an unreliable, invalid measurement device. One English teacher might require a handful of paragraphs to show "mastery" of a writing unit, while the one in the next classroom might require ten 6-page reports. In comparison, a written test is consistent no matter who gives it.


         Subjectivity in scoring: teachers have been shown to be highly influenced in the scores they give various authentic assessments based on how much they like the student, how hard the student tried, how close the student's views or conclusions are to the teacher's own, and so forth. If you have two teachers scoring the same portfolio, you're likely to get vastly different scores; in fact, in writing assessments, scores differ significantly as much as 60% of the time when more than one teacher does the scoring. In contrast, 42 teachers could score the same multiple choice test and get the same score.


         The authentic assessment process takes an inordinate amount of planning time, disrupts normal classroom practice, and eats up teacher time with burdensome evaluation and record-keeping tasks. Research by Harold Wenglinsky and others has also shown that students don't progress as far if they are not regularly assessed with good, old-fashioned, "real-time" paper and pencil tests; there are just too many subjective variables with the other kinds of assessments to be a reliable picture of their progress.


         Because teachers wanted their students to succeed, and to look good on paper, they tended to allow student work that was far too simple and unchallenging. For example, an Oregon high-school student who was assigned to demonstrate a scientific process made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.


Homework: Authentic assessment is one of hundreds of education topics handled well by Charles J. Sykes in his book, Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves But Can't Read, Write, or Add.


By Susan Darst Williams Testing 04 2008

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