Tests: Authentic Assessment?

Should we revisit testing as a means of assessment?

No doubt, students will need to be prepared for college (or, if you teach middle school high school; if you teach elementary school, middle school), and most colleges still using testing as a primary means of assessing students.  After all, when you have a lecture class with 300 students, it is not feasible to use alternative methods of assessment.  Perhaps the biggest argument in favor of keeping tests is to prepare students for the college environment.

I looked over my unit plans, lessons, and assessments this semester, and I realized something interesting.  I have given very few tests.  Most of the tests I have given have been summer reading assessments.  I have relied primarily on the following means of assessment: quizzes, essays, and “authentic assessments.”

My quizzes are typically five-question, short answer quizzes over reading assignments so I can be sure students are doing the reading I have asked them to do.  Students typically do either well or poorly on them based on how well they have read.

Essays are a staple of the English curriculum, but perhaps even more so at my school, with its competitive college preparatory environment and focus on developing writing skills.  My goal has been to assign at least four essays for each class this semester.  I have mostly realized this goal, largely through better planning using UbD to construct units.  I also allowed most of my classes to choose an essay they wrote this semester to revise for a higher grade, as I believe revision and reflection help students see writing as a process.

My “authentic assessments” have come straight from UbD and include crafting a résumé for Beowulf, writing our own Odyssey in order to demonstrate understanding of Homer’s, writing a letter to Arkansas Representative Steve Harrelson regarding his state’s apostrophe dilemma, and creating a comma usage manual for Rogers Communications (that $2 million comma error had to hurt!).

As I indicated in a previous post, I simply ran out of time this semester in order to truly do what I wanted to do with each unit.  I do have fewer minutes per week with my students than I would like — I average 45 minutes per day with each class, which is substantially less than other schools where I’ve worked.  However, what I have learned about the authentic assessments is that they were not only much closer to the kinds of tasks students will be asked to do when they begin their careers than tests.  How many tests have I taken as part of my job?  I can’t think of any.  I did have to take a test to get my certificate.  I had to take another to exempt from a computer skills course required in my state.  No principal has ever asked me to take a test for any reason.  If you take a look at the kinds of tasks I asked students to do to prove to me they internalized the essential questions we were exploring as part of our units this semester, I think you might discover that the tasks were more engaging than the standard test.  The tasks also asked students to think, internalize, apply, analyze, and synthesize information and present it in a unique fashion.  In short, I think they were taxed to think critically on a much higher level in Bloom’s Taxonomy than a standard test would require.

Are tests going anywhere?  I doubt it.  And I do believe that students should know how to take a test and how to study in order to do well in college, but I also think it behooves us as educators to offer them opportunities to demonstrate their learning with authentic assessments that enable students to truly show us what they know and practice working on the kinds of tasks they will be asked to do as part of their careers one day.  At any rate, it’s something to think about.  Though I have had fewer tests in my class this semester, I don’t think my students have learned less or been less challenged.  If anything, they have been more challenged (particularly with regards to writing).  However, I do still plan to give them a final examination.  Still, I think it would be an interesting challenge for all of us to examine what we are accomplishing through tests and ask ourselves if we are really preparing students for life beyond school.

6 thoughts on “Tests: Authentic Assessment?”

  1. I hardly use tests. I use quizzes because it is required by the school on a biweekly basis. However, I typically rely on what you call "authentic assessments" to truly assess my students' learning. Tests are so boring and stupid, but I think I'm with you– they aren't going anywhere.

  2. I'll dissent here: I believe that a well-designed timed test is as authentic as it gets. A good test asks the student to perform a variety of tasks at different cognitive levels, synthesize material from distant segments of the course, and engage in problem solving in a way that requires mastery of basic concepts. At least that's how we do it in math; perhaps English is different, but from my experiences in English courses it wasn't THAT different.

    Are tests engaging? Well, not really, but engaging students is not the only thing. It does no good to have engaged students if their content mastery is next to nothing, or if we simply have no objective way of knowing just how much they have mastered it. As an instructor, I want students to be engaged, but I also have a very clear idea of what students need to know on a sort of atomistic level by the time they leave the course. I have to have a way of knowing whether they know that stuff. Testing works better than what you are calling "authentic" assessments.

    So the thing is to judiciously combine activities and assessments in a course that measure and manage content mastery — THAT's what gets them ready for college, and then college gets them ready for the workforce — and activities/ assessments that motivate and capture the students' interests. One without the other is bad. And it's not an either-or situation.

  3. A question directly to Dana: I have admired your blog and all the units that you come up with so I value your opinion in regards to teaching English and being an effective teacher. When a "new policy" was mentioned in my school, my immediate thought was to talk to you! I wish somehow we could converse personally. Anyway, this is better than nothing. Here goes, I would love your input on this please. Our new asst. super. wants the English dept. to have several choices in our classes for novels that kids can read based on one's reading level. We have no money to test students on what exactly their reading level is, but the asst. super. is all hung up on lexile scores. She thinks that We should have varied groups each reading different novels all in the same class. Going to block scheduling this year, we were given 6 hours of training and then thrown to the wolves in Sept. Now, our deptartment is targeted again in making this change. Have you ever done this? Are you familiar with lexile scores. It seems ridiculous to me to select a novel to teach in class primarily on the reading level. Forget about the interest level or themes or how they can apply the novel to the state assessment! I can't wrap my head around the amount of work this would involve. The school district where I teach is rural and very poor. We have parents who did not graduate high school and think they are surviving ok so education is not a priority. Just wondered what you thought about lexile scores, how you select novels for your class or is it already decided for you? Also, have you done something like this? I would really appreciate your feed back.



  4. Robert, you know I respect your opinion. It might be harder to use alternative assessments in math, particularly at the college level, and there are good tests and bad tests, too. That said, I think in English, it's critical to assess students' critical thinking skills in writing rather than objective tests. The Beowulf résumé, for example, required my students to address our essential question of "What is a hero?" as well as determine what heroic traits Beowulf has and relate them to both Anglo-Saxon ideals and our own ideals. I don't think a test would have worked better than this authentic assessment.


    I'll e-mail you.

  5. What kills me about tests is that some students just… well suck at tests. You give them worksheets and they can do them and get a good grade. Have them do Cornell Notes? No problem! Have them read and then answer questions about what they just read? Good scores again. Tests?

    Crash and Burn baby! And they really hurt their grades with those F's. Now some of the kids have IEPs so they're already having trouble enough. I did suggest they talk to their special ed teachers about resources to help them with tests but it just as frustrating for me as it is for them…

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