Stage 2: Active Processing, Stage 3: Critical Thinking, Testing and Assessments

Stop faking: the secret to getting real with assessments

Quick, write a multiple choice question for this standard:

Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 8 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly. (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.8.1)

Okay okay that really wasn’t fair.  It is after all a speaking and listening standard.  Try this one:

Analyze data obtained from testing different materials to determine which materials have the properties that are best suited for an intended purpose. (NGSS. 2-PS1-2)

Possible…but difficult.  It’s pretty obvious that it makes more sense to assess these standards with something besides a multiple choice question, something even beyond a short answer.  In fact, we argue that the range of assessments needs to include something a little different: authentic assessments.  There’s a few reasons why:

1) See how students do in the game; not just in drills

Authentic assessments mirror the real world as much as possible.  This means using real situations and roles to design tasks for students to demonstrate their learning.

1060basketball_gameIn their foundational book Understanding by Design Wiggins and McTighe explain the difference between an authentic task and how we normally think about assessments by using one of my favorite metaphors.  They compare traditional assessment exercises to lay-up drills and authentic performance tasks to a full basketball game.  The difference is that “an exercise involves a straightforward execution of a ‘move’ out of context” whereas a performance task requires “thought of the many choices and challenges that confront a performer in practice.”

Look back at that science standard.  Writing a multiple choice question to assess it is feasible, but you would probably lose parts of the goal.  For instance if you gave students the properties of different materials and asked them to choose which was best for the intended purpose, you would probably lose the analysis of the raw data from testing.

An authentic assessment, on the other hand, might ask students to take on the role of scientists looking for a metal that is malleable enough to use in high speed internet wiring.  In this task students would analyze the data from scientific tests to determine which metal (if any) is most appropriate for creating internet service wires.  Students would have to make a plan for how to analyze the data and explain their reasoning about their final decision.

Unlike a multiple choice or short answer question, in the performance tasks students would go through the full performance of the standard.  Just as important, they might have to try out different approaches to figure out which metal is best, deal with ambiguity, and maybe even work collaboratively with their peers.  In an authentic performance task, students would be learning not just the discrete moves, but how to apply those moves in context.

If we want students to be prepared for the challenges of the world, we need to give them opportunities to practice the full game, not just the drills.

thinking2) Get the clearest picture of students’ thinking

Even if you managed to fit all the elements of a complex standard in multiple choice questions, at the end of the assessment you would really only know if students were right or if they were wrong.

This means you would miss out on understanding the most important part of the goal: the student’s thinking. How did the student reason that this material was best for this intended purpose?  What was his or her logic?

Missing that means you miss out on the opportunity to see what’s happening in students’ heads and provide feedback to improve it (pretty important right?).

3) Provide opportunities for creative thinking and problem solving

What happens on a multiple choice test if the student analyzes the data and comes to a logically reasoned conclusion that isn’t one of the answer choices? What if a student has a question that adds complexity to the problem (say he or she challenges the validity of the experiment in question).  What then?

Authentic performance tasks allow for this creative thinking that we want to encourage.

4) Measure transfer

More about this very important element tomorrow!

Need another reason to include authentic performance tasks in your assessment repertoire? Performance tasks will be a big part of the next generation of assessments that will be coming to a classroom near you (and your classroom) in 2014-2015.  Check out a few examples of performance tasks from both PARCC and Smarter Balance (the two consortia designing these assessments).

So how do you design authentic performance tasks?

Wiggins & McTighe suggests designing assessments by thinking about what evidence you would like the task to yield and then creating a goal, role, audience, situation, product, and standards (GRASPs).


Think about how you might design a performance task around the ELA standard we started with. Share your idea below.

4 thoughts on “Stop faking: the secret to getting real with assessments”

  1. What do you make of the fact that students will face major tests (from the DC/M/X CAS to the SATs to the GREs and LSATs) in and beyond college? While teachers have the ability to create some changes, don’t we also have the responsibility to devote some time to preparing students to advance through the gatekeepers of tests?

    While I do not believe the two are mutually exclusive, a colleague of mine recently authored the following article:

    This got me thinking that some explicit test prep may be necessary for some students. What say you?
    (feeling very blessed my content isn’t tested…)

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comment Laura! Three quick thoughts:

    1) I agree with your colleague’s argument that tests are important and that standardized tests don’t result in an automatic dumbing down of the curriculum. Of course, in some cases focusing on testing basic skills does lead to teachers focusing on teaching those skills. We all need to be vigilant in preventing that wherever we see it.

    2) True – as long as students are required to take “gatekeeper tests” like the SAT, GREs, etc we need to prepare students for success on these types of assessments. There may always be a few tricks that will help students excel on these tests, but by and large if students know how to think they can tackle them. Providing authentic assessments as one of the many ways you gather information on student learning is a great way to improve student thinking.

    3) The bar exam (the test we all think of as super traditional) now includes a performance task. The gatekeeper tests might just be evolving 🙂

  3. Thanks for your post, Laura! It’s true, tests are part of life. We can’t pretend that they aren’t. You pose the question, “Don’t we have the responsibility to prepare students to advance through the gatekeepers of tests?” Our simple answer is: yes.

    But the better question is HOW do we do this? What actually prepares students for tests? Your colleague at APR essentially argues that she does very little “test-prep” because the majority of her course involves more complex, intellectually demanding work — reading, discussing, presenting, acting. And research supports this approach — the Chicago study we mentioned yesterday offers evidence that real-world tasks ARE test prep. The other little test-taking tricks can help students navigate questions more quickly, or make good guesses when they are unsure, or to overcome nerves and stress, but they aren’t interesting or motivating or personally valuable to most kids. So, we’d argue that assigning authentic work (with maybe a light sprinkling of test-taking tricks when necessary) is still the best way to go.

    It’s also good to note that the next generation of “standardized tests” from PARCC and Smarter Balance are intended to involve more complex, real-world items with messy parameters that require students to perform their own research and persevere with the same task over several hours or days (a far cry from the tests most of us have now).

    Students (and the world) lose out, though, when assessments are only school exercises and have no value beyond a grade for class. We need students to know NOW that they are capable of making the world more just, free, equal, and sustainable and that the purpose of their education is to help them to do so.

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