Academic journal article High School Journal

Authentic Assessment: A Solution, or Part of the Problem?

Academic journal article High School Journal

Authentic Assessment: A Solution, or Part of the Problem?

Article excerpt

Among educational reformers, one point of focus is classroom assessment. It has become common to criticize traditional testing for its emphasis on outcomes that will not serve the student beyond the classroom. Authentic assessment has emerged out of this discussion with the promise that assessment can be constructed so as to further both learning and teaching. Analysis has been largely uncritical, however, and the emphasis on authentic outcomes poses problems as well as solutions.

The call to educational reform has become a dominant theme in the popular as well as the scholarly press. One of its expressions involves persistent criticism of the way educators evaluate student performance. The criticism has substance. The tests that teachers administer sometimes offer poor content coverage. According to Kamphaus (1991), it is "nothing short of appalling" (p. 301). Resnick (1987) noted that teacher tests emphasize a narrow range of cognitive skills often disconnected from what students will face beyond the classroom.

The effort to address the problems has prompted a new look at some of the assessment alternatives. Noted Darling-Hammond, Ancess, and Falk (1995),

   Increasingly, local schools, school districts, and states are experimenting
   with ... alternatives to standardized testing for assessing student
   learning and performance. Persuaded that traditional standardized tests
   fail to measure many of the important aspects of learning, and that they do
   not support many of the most useful strategies for teaching, practitioners
   are introducing alternative approaches to assessment into the
   classroom--approaches that help teachers look more carefully and closely at
   students, their learning, and their work. (p. 4)

More "authentic" forms of assessment are often the prescription. Advocates argue that such an approach connects the classroom to life beyond the school, and advances the quality of teaching in the process. The claims are enticing, but may one safely assume that such assessment reforms bring only improvement? This paper is an effort to analyze the both the promise and some of the problems associated with authentic assessment.

The Rationale for Authentic Assessment

Authentic assessment advocates argue that conventional measurement practices place too much emphasis on passing a test rather than learning what one must know in order to adjust to the community beyond the school. They maintain that assessment ought to encourage the transfer of learning. It should require a performance that will still have currency after formal schooling ends. The concept is new only in some of the more traditional academic subjects. Physical education, art, music, and many vocational programs have a lengthy tradition of assessing authentic work samples.

Implicit in the movement to authentic assessment is the sense that traditional test results may be poor predictors of student performance beyond the school. That is not only a recent conclusion. Long before authentic assessment became a rallying point, Fitzpatrick and Morrison (1971) offered a harbinger of the movement.

   One reason to teach children arithmetic is so that they can carry out
   transactions with money in stores, banks, etc, But arithmetic tests are
   seldom designed to simulate concretely either the stimuli or the responses
   involved in, say, making change for a purchase of $2.89 out of a $5 bill.
   Rather the test is an abstract representation of only those stimuli and
   responses that are considered to constitute subtraction. Efficiency thereby
   is served since it would be difficult to test each student in actual
   financial transactions, not to mention the various other contexts in which
   subtraction is used. However, this efficiency often may be achieved at the
   price of applicability. It is a common failing of educational endeavors
   that the student cannot, or at any rate does not, apply what he has learned
   when it is appropriate. … 
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