Wednesday, July 22, 2015

How Authentic Are Your Assessments?

As our schools transition from implementing to evaluating instruction that addresses the cognitive rigor of college and career ready standards such as the Common Core State Standards, many states have decided to grant schools and students a reprieve from mandates that measure and monitor overall school performance based upon the results of the new state summative assessments such as the PARCC or SBAC.  Some state education agencies and charter school authority boards are allowing schools to use the site-based assessments they have implemented at their schools from testing corporations such as ATI-Galileo, NWEA, Acuity, and MAP for reporting student performance and progress.
However, how authentic are these assessments?  Are they expecting students to answer questions correctly based upon how effectively they can remember, understand, and use what they have learned or are they engaging students to express and share how they would use the education and experience - or expertise - they have acquired and developed to address and respond to the question?
Authentic assessments resemble reading and writing in the real world and in school (Hiebert, Valencia & Afflerbach, 1994Wiggins, 1993).  These assessments generally challenge and engage students to demonstrate and communicate their deeper knowledge, understanding, and awareness using oral, written, creative, or technical expression. They also prompt students read, review, and respond to texts or comment upon and critique the ideas, incidents, individuals, and issues they are learning supported by relevant and sufficient evidence and valid reasoning.  They also encourage students to share and show what can they do or produce with the deeper and broader knowledge and thinking they have acquired and developed.
In other words, they resemble how students will address and respond to circumstances and situations not only academically but also personally, professionally, and socially throughout and beyond their formal K-12 education.  Think about it.  How are we "tested" in life or the depth and extent of our knowledge and thinking evaluated?  The only time we would be given a multiple choice test is for certification or licensure or unless we go on a game show like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (see my other blog entry on Let's Make a D.O.K.!) Our knowledge and thinking is "tested" and evaluated based upon how correctly, clearly, comprehensively, and creatively we can communicate our claims, conclusions, and contentions.
That's how we should be authentically assessing our students - based upon how their ability to communicate the knowledge and thinking they have acquired and developed through their education and experiences.
In education, authentic assessments are typically used in active learning experiences such as project-based and problem-based learning that prompt and encourage students to create, do, or produce something - a plan, a product, or a project - that reflects and represents how deeply and extensively they have learned the subjects and topics they are studying.  The assessment is generally based upon the quality of the project produced or the success of the student to come up with a solution.
However, even though project design and problem solving are active and authentic learning experiences, are the final products and solutions students produce truly or authentically mark and measure the level and depth of their learning?
Don't get me wrong!  Project-based and problem-based learning are excellent instructional methods and strategies that not only challenge but also engage students to demonstrate and communicate their learning in-depth, insightfully, and in their own unique way.  However, when it comes to assessment, most PBL experiences merely scratch the surface, focusing on what can you create, do, or produce without delving into how and why you created, did, or produced the project or solution.
That is true authentic assessment - evaluating not only how correctly but also clearly, comprehensively, and even creatively can students communicate their knowledge and thinking using oral, written, creative, or technical expression.
 It's how we are expected to answer questions, address problems, and accomplish tasks in the real world.  Think about it.  In our professional and personal lives, when we answer a question, address a problem, or accomplish a task, we're not just expected to "just do it".  We're also expected to delve deeper by expressing and sharing how and why we answered, addressed the problem, and and accomplished the task.  We need to defend, explain, justify, and support our actions and decisions.  We are also encouraged to pass on our education and experiences - or expertise - to others.
Authentic assessment is about communication and expression, not just activity, production, and design.   The quality of the response is determined based upon the following:
  • Did the student answer the question, address the problem, or accomplish the task correctly, clearly, comprehensively, and even creatively?
  • Did the student express and share their claims, conclusions, and contentions in-depth, in detail, insightfully, and inimitably?
  • Did the student strengthen and support their responses with textual evidence, personal experience, recorded observations, or scientifically-based research?
So how does this translate into the classroom?  We need to move away from tests that use multiple choice and provide assessments that utilize open-ended questions that provide students the opportunity to express and share the depth and extent of their learning.  We need to refocus our evaluation of student learning from determining whether students can answer the question correctly to whether students to defend and support their response to what the question is addressing using their education and experience - or expertise - as evidentiary support.  
However, this does not involve having students demonstrate and communicate their learning primarily through PBL experiences.  We can convert the performance objectives of college and career ready standards into good overarching and topical essential questions they can address and respond using the texts and topics they are reading and reviewing as evidentiary support.
Good overarching questions are the inquiries students will examine and explore throughout and beyond their K-12 education.  They address the core ideas and enduring understandings of an academic area, discipline, or field of study.  These core ideas are addressed in the disciplinary core standards of the college and career ready standards.  We can use the performance objectives to develop good overarching questions that can serve as the formative and summative assessments for a grade level or subject area.
Take a look at the questions in the accompanying graphic.  These are derived directly from the ELA / Literacy CCSS Anchor Standards for reading.  These are the good questions students will examine and explore throughout and beyond their K-12 experience with reading.  Consider how these good questions can act as the final assessment at a particular grade level or subject area.  They can also serve as benchmark assessments that progressively measure and monitor how deeply and extensively students have learned these concepts and content throughout their K-12 education.   Think about it.  What if students were asked these same questions at the end of every school year starting in Kindergarten and through 12th grade and used the texts and topics they read and review in class that particular as their evidentiary support for their responses?  How could this serve as a true measure of how deeply and extensively students have learned these disciplinary core ideas in a particular subject area?
The performance objectives for grade level academic would serve as the topical essential question for a particular unit or lesson. Take a look at the good questions that are derived from the performance objectives of the following math standards for a 3rd grade unit on multiplication and division. The cluster serves as the topical essential question that sets the instructional focus and serves as the summative assessment for the unit.  The performance objectives listed under the cluster serve as the daily good question that sets the instructional focus and serves as the summative assessment for individual lessons or learning experiences.  The problems students will be presented as part of the unit will serve as the textual evidence that strengthens and supports their responses.  We can provide a learning experience that challenges and prompts students to address and respond to one of these questions and use the problems they are presented to examine and solve as their evidence.  Look at the accompanying graphic that would drive a lesson on understanding and applying the Pythagorean Theorem.  The question students need to address and respond is the one in green at the top of the graphic.  The problems they need to examine and solve will serve as their examples and evidence that will strengthen and support their response to the question at the header of the slide.  However, I would advise not having the students examine and solve all these problems in one setting.  Ask them to address and respond to the good topical question and pick one or two problems to examine and solve to support their response.  The next day, ask them to pick two or three more of these math problems and explain how they can be solved using the Pythagorean Theorem.  At the end of the unit, present that topical essential question as the assessment or "test" question and have them pick the one problem they left remaining to strengthen and support their response.  It's practically a given that the one problem students' chose not to solve is the one they perceived to be the "hardest" one.  Think about how much you would build a student's confidence if they were successfully able to express and share how they could use the math to solve that problem they perceived to be so hard.  Also, consider how you would be able to assess their learning authentically by observing how deeply and successfully they can express and share how they can "use the math" - or rather, think mathematically. 
In English language arts, the overarching essential questions are the grade level performance objectives of the academic standards that will set the instructional focus and serve as the summative assessment for the course.  The topical questions will directly address the text or topic being read in reviewed in class.  Look at the topical essential questions for this book study on Charlotte's Web by E.B. White.  These questions authentically assess how deeply and extensively students understand the ideas and information presented in the text by challenging them to express and share what they have learned using oral, written, creative, or technical expression.  They will use specific evidence from the text to strengthen and support their responses. Similarly, these topical essential questions for a unit on Shakespearean tragic hero also set the instructional focus and serve as the summative authentic assessment that measures and monitors how deeply and extensively the students understand the texts and topics they are reading and reviewing.
To create authentic assessments that measure and monitor the depth and extent of students' understanding of the core ideas of an academic area, discipline, or field of study, look at the performance objectives of the disciplinary anchor standards and practices for a particular subject area.  You can use the ELA/Literacy CCSS Anchor Standards for Reading, the CCSS Standards for Mathematical Practices, the Crosscutting Concepts of the Next Generation Science Standards, or the Historical Thinking Standards, or the conceptual standards of the C3 State Standards for Social Studies.  Convert those performance objectives into good questions that ask students to address and respond how or why.
To create authentic assessments that assess and evaluate deeper and extensive knowledge and thinking about a particular text or topic, look at the performance objectives of the grade level or subject area academic standards that students will address as part of a lesson or unit.  Other than the English language arts college and career ready standards, these performance objectives generally challenge and engage students to demonstrate and communicate deeper and extensive content understanding.  The topical essential question will serve as the single question students will continuously examine and explain over the course of the unit.  It will also be the single question which students will need to address and respond at the end of the unit.  They will need to address and respond to this question by demonstrating and communicating their learning by processing the information they have acquired and gathered into their personal or self-knowledge and use specific evidence from the texts and topics they are reading, reviewing, and responding to as support.
That's authentic learning - expressing and sharing depth and extent of knowledge and thinking supported by examples and evidence - and that's what it means to assess learning authentically. 
Erik M. Francis, M.Ed., M.S., is the lead professional education specialist and owner of Maverik Education LLC, providing professional development and consultation on teaching and learning for cognitive rigor. His book Now THAT'S a Good Question! How to Promote Cognitive Rigor Through Classroom Questioning will be published by ASCD in February 2016. For more information on this topic or how to receive professional development at your site, please visit www.maverikeducation.com.

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