What Is Authentic Assessment?

Authentic assessment refers to assessment tasks that resemble reading and writing in the real world and in school (Hiebert, Valencia & Afflerbach, 1994; Wiggins, 1993). Its aim is to assess many different kinds of literacy abilities in contexts that closely resemble actual situations in which those abilities are used. For example, authentic assessments ask students to read real texts, to write for authentic purposes about meaningful topics, and to participate in authentic literacy tasks such as discussing books, keeping journals, writing letters, and revising a piece of writing until it works for the reader. Both the material and the assessment tasks look as natural as possible. Furthermore, authentic assessment values the thinking behind work, the process, as much as the finished product (Pearson & Valencia, 1987; Wiggins, 1989; Wolf, 1989).

Working on authentic tasks is a useful, engaging activity in itself; it becomes an "episode of learning" for the student (Wolf, 1989). From the teacher's perspective, teaching to such tasks guarantees that we are concentrating on worthwhile skills and strategies (Wiggins, 1989). Students are learning and practicing how to apply important knowledge and skills for authentic purposes. They should not simply recall information or circle isolated vowel sounds in words; they should apply what they know to new tasks. For example, consider the difference between asking students to identify all the metaphors in a story and asking them to discuss why the author used particular metaphors and what effect they had on the story. In the latter case, students must put their knowledge and skills to work just as they might do naturally in or out of school.

Performance assessment is a term that is commonly used in place of, or with, authentic assessment. Performance assessment requires students to demonstrate their knowledge, skills, and strategies by creating a response or a product (Rudner & Boston, 1994; Wiggins, 1989). Rather than choosing from several multiple-choice options, students might demonstrate their literacy abilities by conducting research and writing a report, developing a character analysis, debating a character's motives, creating a mobile of important information they learned, dramatizing a favorite story, drawing and writing about a story, or reading aloud a personally meaningful section of a story. For example, after completing a first-grade theme on families in which students learned about being part of a family and about the structure and sequence of stories, students might illustrate and write their own flap stories with several parts, telling a story about how a family member or friend helped them when they were feeling sad.

The formats for performance assessments range from relatively short answers to long-term projects that require students to present or demonstrate their work. These performances often require students to engage in higher-order thinking and to integrate many language arts skills. Consequently, some performance assessments are longer and more complex than more traditional assessments. Within a complete assessment system, however, there should be a balance of longer performance assessments and shorter ones.

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