In other words, a task we ask students to perform is considered authentic when 1) students are asked to construct their own responses rather than select from ones presented and 2) the task replicates challenges faced in the real world. (Of course, other definitions abound.)
If I were teaching you how to play golf, I would not determine whether you had met my standards by giving you a multiple-choice test. I would put you out on the golf course to "construct your own responses" in the face of real-world challenges. Similarly, in school we are ultimately less interested in how much information students can acquire than how well they can use it. Thus, our most meaningful assessments ask students to perform authentic tasks.
However, these tasks are not just assessments. Authentic assessment, in contrast to more traditional assessment, encourages the integration of teaching, learning and assessing. In the "traditional assessment" model, teaching and learning are often separated from assessment, i.e., a test is administered after knowledge or skills have (hopefully) been acquired. In the authentic assessment model, the same authentic task used to measure the students' ability to apply the knowledge or skills is used as a vehicle for student learning. For example, when presented with a real-world problem to solve, students are learning in the process of developing a solution, teachers are facilitating the process, and the students' solutions to the problem becomes an assessment of how well the students can meaningfully apply the concepts.
Another way that authentic assessment is commonly distinguished from traditional assessment is in terms of their defining attributes. Of course, traditional assessments as well as authentic assessments vary considerably in the forms they take. But, typically, along the continuums of attributes listed below, traditional assessments fall more towards the left end of each continuum and authentic assessments fall more towards the right end.
Traditional ------------------------------------------- Authentic
Selecting a Response ----------------------------------- Performing a Task
Contrived -------------------------------------------------------------- Real-life
Recall/Recognition ------------------------------ Construction/Application
Teacher-structured ------------------------------------ Student-structured
Indirect Evidence ------------------------------------------- Direct Evidence
Let me clarify the attributes by elaborating on each in the context of traditional and authentic assessments:
Selecting a Response to Performing a Task: On traditional assessments, students are typically given several choices (e.g., a,b,c or d; true or false; which of these match with those) and asked to select the right answer. In contrast, authentic assessments ask students to demonstrate understanding by performing a more complex task usually representative of more meaningful application.
Contrived to Real-life: It is not very often in life outside of school that we are asked to select from four alternatives to indicate our proficiency at something. Tests offer these contrived means of assessment to increase the number of times you can be asked to demonstrate proficiency in a short period of time. More commonly in life, as in authentic assessments, we are asked to demonstrate proficiency by doing something.
Recall/Recognition of Knowledge to Construction/Application of Knowledge: Well-designed traditional assessments (i.e., tests and quizzes) can effectively determine whether or not students have acquired a body of knowledge. Thus, as mentioned above, tests can serve as a nice complement to authentic assessments in a teacher's assessment portfolio. Furthermore, we are often asked to recall or recognize facts and ideas and propositions in life, so tests are somewhat authentic in that sense. However, the demonstration of recall and recognition on tests is typically much less revealing about what we really know and can do than when we are asked to construct a product or performance out of facts, ideas and propositions. Authentic assessments often ask students to analyze, synthesize and apply what they have learned in a substantial manner, and students create new meaning in the process as well.
Teacher-structured to Student-structured: When completing a traditional assessment, what a student can and will demonstrate has been carefully structured by the person(s) who developed the test. A student's attention will understandably be focused on and limited to what is on the test. In contrast, authentic assessments allow more student choice and construction in determining what is presented as evidence of proficiency. Even when students cannot choose their own topics or formats, there are usually multiple acceptable routes towards constructing a product or performance. Obviously, assessments more carefully controlled by the teachers offer advantages and disadvantages. Similarly, more student-structured tasks have strengths and weaknesses that must be considered when choosing and designing an assessment.
Indirect Evidence to Direct Evidence: Even if a multiple-choice question asks a student to analyze or apply facts to a new situation rather than just recall the facts, and the student selects the correct answer, what do you now know about that student? Did that student get lucky and pick the right answer? What thinking led the student to pick that answer? We really do not know. At best, we can make some inferences about what that student might know and might be able to do with that knowledge. The evidence is very indirect, particularly for claims of meaningful application in complex, real-world situations. Authentic assessments, on the other hand, offer more direct evidence of application and construction of knowledge. As in the golf example above, putting a golf student on the golf course to play provides much more direct evidence of proficiency than giving the student a written test. Can a student effectively critique the arguments someone else has presented (an important skill often required in the real world)? Asking a student to write a critique should provide more direct evidence of that skill than asking the student a series of multiple-choice, analytical questions about a passage, although both assessments may be useful.
I have used the term traditional assessment on this site to refer to the many tests that are commonly administered to assess the acquisition of knowledge and skills. Tests usually consist of selected-response items (see below) and, occasionally, some constructed-response items. In contrast, authentic assessments include tasks such as performances, products and constructed-response items that typically require more direct application of knowledge and skills. These types of tasks are described below along with common examples of each.
In response to a prompt, students select an answer from among those given or from memory or from allowable study aids. Typically, no new knowledge is constructed; students simply recall or recognize information required to select the appropriate response. Examples include
In response to a prompt, students construct an answer out of old and new knowledge. Since there is no one exact answer to these prompts, students are constructing new knowledge that likely differs slightly or significantly from that constructed by other students. Typically, constructed response prompts are narrowly conceived, delivered at or near the same time a response is expected and are limited in length. However, the fact that students must construct new knowledge means that at least some of their thinking must be revealed. As opposed to selected response items, the teachers gets to look inside the head a little with constructed response answers. Examples include
In response to a prompt (assignment) or series of prompts, students construct a substantial, tangible product that reveals their understanding of certain concepts and skills and/or their ability to apply, analyze, synthesize or evaluate those concepts and skills. It is similar to a constructed-response item in that students are required to construct new knowledge and not just select a response. However, product assessments typically are more substantial in depth and length, more broadly conceived, and allow more time between the presentation of the prompt and the student response than constructed-response items. Examples include
In response to a prompt (assignment) or series of prompts, students construct a performance that reveals their understanding of certain concepts and skills and/or their ability to apply, analyze, synthesize or evaluate those concepts and skills. It is similar to a constructed-response item in that students are required to construct new knowledge and not just select a response. However, performances typically are more substantial in depth and length, more broadly conceived, and allow more time between the presentation of the prompt and the student response than constructed-response items. Examples include
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Copyright 2014, Jon Mueller. Professor of Psychology, North Central College, Naperville, IL. Comments, questions or suggestions about this website should be sent to the author, Jon Mueller, at firstname.lastname@example.org.