I’m a supporter of authentic assessment tasks. I came out of university 5 1/2 years ago with a project-based teaching style all ready to implement. I created projects for my junior highs that were fun and meaningful and (more) authentic than most assessments and evaluations I endured growing up. I say (more) authentic because for the most part I am still the main audience for their work, even if I try not to be. I know I need to work at getting their projects in front of a more authentic audience but thus far I haven’t consistently done that.
Here are some examples of the projects I’ve created for my junior highs: My grade 7 students wrote and (randomly) presented instructions on a topic of their choice. We’ve had instructions about how to properly groom a miniature pony, and the pony came to school to be groomed; how to put on hockey gear (always “randomly” assigned to a girl); how to do your make-up (always “randomly assigned to a boy); how to make a disgusting sandwich (and the boy who followed the instructions actually ate it–yuck!); and how to woo a girl (so cute with the writing of a poem and set-up of a picnic). The 7’s have also created menu’s for a restaurant of their creating and in recent years some menus have been created online. My grade 8’s have created tv ad storyboards for a company of their choosing to pitch to someone they actually thought was an ad agency rep. They also created trading cards of the characters from The Outsiders again thinking they were actually being sent to a company who was holding a contest to promote their new line of educational trading cards. (I love how gullible grade 8’s are, and it leads to awesome authentic tasks.) My grade 9’s have created CD inserts for a band and album they create from the ground up, writing all the “lyrics” (poetry) to go in it, based on a theme of their choice. They’ve also written and mailed letters of complaint/compliment to actual businesses of their choice.
But that’s junior high. When it came to my high school classes, I must admit I struggled greatly with utilizing authentic assessment tasks. Despite believing that these types of assessments better engaged my students, required more creative and critical thought, led to deeper understanding of texts and concepts, and brought meaning to the tasks, I balked at the high school level. That’s not to say that I didn’t create assessments that weren’t creative and interesting, but they lacked that authentic feel, and if I’m being honest they were much fewer and farther between. Part of the problem has been the curriculum I have to teach and assess; I’ve struggled to envision authentic assessment tasks that relate to Shakespeare (comment with your suggestions) or how academic essays are in any way authentic (when’s the last time you wrote one???). The time frame has also been an issue. My senior high ELA classes are semestered 84 minute periods daily. However, there have been years where I have had junior high classes that were also 84 minutes daily, but all year. In order to cover and assess all the outcomes, plus prepare for diploma exams worth 50% of their overall mark, I just didn’t feel I had the time to assign authentic assessments that allowed students choices, opportunities to significantly revise ideas mid-stride, or deeply explore texts and concepts. I felt they needed to be taught and assessed and shoved off to their next class.
This year I felt that a stronger focus on 21st century competencies might replace my guilt about not offering authentic assessment tasks to my high school students. We did some really neat stuff last term in my ELA 20 and 30 classes, mostly revolving around collaboration and critical thinking, with some creativity and tech tossed in for good measure. I tried to differentiate, allow for personal choices, and encourage deeper thought about the world in which they live. And things were great. Students actually said they enjoyed the atmosphere and purpose of the class and even some of the texts; although, the notion of ELA still depressed some of them. It had been my hope that prepping kids for the 21st century would result in improved diploma exam grades. I no longer believe this to be true. (You can read THIS post of mine for more explanation.) Reflecting on the diploma exams got me to thinking that 21st century competencies really aren’t enough if these competencies are going to be assessed through inauthentic assessments. I’m not saying that critical thinking, for example, can’t be assessed unless it’s through an authentic task, but it would certainly help. What I am saying is that very few people write essays or multiple choice tests in the “real world.” I know professionals don’t create in isolation under ridiculous time limits. So why do we expect these things from our students? The more we can prep our students for their lives when they leave our classroom, the better. For that reason I am hoping to bring better assessment opportunities to my students. My goals are to remove as much inauthentic assessment from my courses as possible, including my final exams; to focus even more on the 21st century competencies; to incorporate more (more) authentic assessment tasks; and to find ways to bring my students’ work to more authentic audiences. Please, pass along any suggestions you might have.
If you have the time, I’d love for you to take a look at a (more) authentic assessment task that I created for my ELA 10 class. They are currently working on this project, but any feedback you can offer would be great!