I know I am not alone in the engagement challenge. In a world where students can stream fistfights and stand-up comedians, how do you get them to care about what’s going on in your little classroom? There are more distractions for students now than any other time in history. Yet, we are tasked with making school feel even more important, relevant, and engaging than ever before. What’s a teacher to do? Enter authentic assessments.
What Are Authentic Assessments?
I’m going to give you the quick-and-dirty definition here and then illustrate with an example.
You know what an assessment is: a culminating test, project, paper, or assignment that is meant to measure a student’s level of growth in a subject matter.
When you and I were in school, many of our assessments were multiple choice scantrons. Or maybe a ton of standard 5-paragraph essays.
Traditional assessments have been formulaic. Rote. Boring.
So what’s an authentic assessment? It’s an assessment that is, well, authentic. It’s real.
Never in my profession has my principal asked me to take a multiple choice test. Or even write a 5-paragraph essay. Those tasks just don’t have much meaning in the “real world.” Why, then, do we make our students do them?
Students have a nose for time-wasting crap. They know that in the long run, being able to write a thesis probably won’t be all that important. So why put in the effort?
Authentic assessments replicate real-world activities or pursuits. A multiple choice test on fractions doesn’t reflect real life tasks. However, having students bake 12 cookies using a cookie recipe that yields 48 suddenly makes their knowledge of fractions high-stakes.
In an English class, the 5-paragraph essay can be replaced with all kinds of projects that are more likely to occur in real life: speeches, debates, discussions, pamphlet or letter writing, etc.
Authentic assessments give students a purpose behind their learning.
So, how do we go about creating authentic assessments for our students?
Authentic Assessments: One Example
This past week I had the pleasure of being involved in two different authentic assessments–one in my own classroom, and one in a colleague’s.
In both of the authentic assessments I took part in this past week, there was nervous energy around the students. They cared about their performance.
During the process, you could see the confidence gained and how proud they were of themselves for completing the task.
I’ll focus on the example in my colleague’s leadership class.
For his final exam, his students had to make a speech about the person who had impacted them most during their life. The speech was only two minutes, but it had all the components of an authentic assessment.
Components of Authentic Assessments
In order for an assessment to be truly authentic, it needs to include three critical components.
#1: A Real-World Task
In my colleague’s leadership class, students had to make a speech.
Students know that important people make speeches. They’ve seen Ted Talks. They know that in business, they will have to speak in front of others.
Making the connection between this assignment and the world after high school is not much of a leap.
#2: Real-World Audience
Students weren’t just presenting their speeches to their teachers, however. They weren’t even just presenting to their classmates.
No, these poor students had to perform in front of staff and administration (many adults that they didn’t know).
During final exams, teachers on prep and support staff were invited to come in and watch the speeches. This is how I ended up having the privilege to watch these young people speak.
Having to perform in front of some strangers as well as peers made the students nervous. But that nervousness is a good thing! Because it means they cared.
I watched student after student walk up to the podium, shaking or jittery. But they didn’t give up. They gave their speeches and then congratulated on another for facing their fears.
Even more important than the ability to write or present a speech was the students’ learning that they can overcome difficult challenges.
#3: Hands-On or Performance-Based Task
All students were given the option to use an outline (you could see the regret on the faces of those who had decided to skip that tool).
Ultimately, however, their instructor expected them to speak smoothly and freely which meant no reading straight from the page. This meant students had to prepare and practice before giving their speech.
With authentic assessments, you have to actually use the knowledge or skills you’ve acquired in your studies. Merely showing up and guessing will never be enough.
If your authentic assessment takes place in the classroom, I also encourage you to modify the room for the event. Changing students’ everyday setting helps them realize that this task is different and elevated from their normal routine. It makes things a bit more “real” in my opinion.
For the speeches, the teacher had reorganized the classroom to create staging area. He had also set each place at a table with snacks, treats, and drinks to be served family-style.
The first ten minutes or so students and staff chatted and snacked together. Students reviewed their outlines and shared their nervousness while the staff gave them words of encouragement.
You could tell who had taken their speeches seriously and rehearsed. You could also tell who wasn’t going to do well.
The Power of Authentic Assessments
In their speeches, students had to talk about a person whom they deeply admired.
Clearly, some students were better prepared than others, and some were more comfortable speaking in front of others. But the stories they shared in just two minutes were incredible.
I won’t forget the student who was grateful to his father for always working hard for his family, even when the student and his parents were living together in a van.
Another student told about the time his family had no food and no electricity, so he stole a frozen pizza from the corner store and cooked it over a bonfire to feed his siblings.
Some students got teary-eyes talking about the support they receive from friends and classmates.
Not only were the speakers engaged during their speech, but their classmates were fully immersed in the stories their peers shared. Those students won’t forget sharing that part of themselves, and no one in the audience will forget either.
This authentic assessment won’t be forgotten because their was emotion attached to it. Not only was the content of the speeches sometimes emotional, but simply the act of overcoming stage fright left some students emotionally hungover.
Next time they have to write a speech, they’ll know exactly what to do, what will be expected, and how to prepare.
Authentic Assessments Are Unforgettable
Not only did students have meet the standards for speaking and listening and do some writing, but most of them face a real fear of speaking and sharing in front of others.
And now they know they can do something that before would have seemed impossible.
This is what engagement looks like. Students’ hearts were beating quickly. They were nervous, and there was a lot of fidgeting.
When it was over, they congratulated and praised one another. They smiled. Students had pride in the task that they accomplished.
There were no cell phones. There were no side conversations. Yes, much of this had to do with the positive classroom culture that had been created over the course of the whole quarter, but their eyes weren’t glazed over either.
Creating Your Authentic Assessment
Finding that “real-world” task always seems daunting at first, but it can be much easier than we initially think.
Submitting writing to a contest is a real-world activity with an authentic audience and real stakes. Writing letters about an important issue and sending them is another way.
Remember the power of reading and writing; how can your students use it in a meaningful way right now? How can you gets students’ words in front of a real-world audience?
One Last Example
The other authentic assessment I worked on this past week was my The Hate U Give classroom discussion.
Discussions are very real-world–they happen every day at parties, at work, on the bus, etc. I bring in other adults–teachers, guidance counselors, the librarian, my instructional coach–to discuss with students at small round tables.
I decorate our desks with table cloths and place-cards and bring in snacks for students and staff to eat while discussing the novel. Students must support their thoughts with quotes and examples from the book which they collect by close reading the novel as we go through it during the quarter.
My students are always nervous before our conversations begin. And they are always proud of themselves and happy from deep, fulfilling conversations afterwards.
Whatever you decide to do with your students, remember to include that real-world applicability, an authentic audience, and a hands-on task.
I can’t guarantee that everything will be smooth and perfect; these are long term projects for both the students and you. They take some time to set up.
However, I can guarantee that the effort and experience will be ones that neither you nor your students will forget.