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Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings

Students should be at the center of Authentic Assessment

What is Authentic Assessment? What is the purpose of assessment, grades, tests?

It is not enough to just assess what students know or don’t know and mark it in a book or relay it to the parents, twice a year at conferences. I think assessment should be used solely for the the betterment and growth of student as they seek to make meaningful constructions of the knowledge of the world. It should help the child and teachers (parents) look at what and how they know the things they do, to further their learning.

I have never understood why the assessment is often so one-sided. The teacher is merely one voice in the conversation. When the student is not at the center of the assessment, then it is detached and fragmented lacking any power to lead to real authentic growth. Students might preform well, might score well on the state test, or complete all the assignments, but the minute the voice disappears there is no motivation or resources for the child to do their own work.

 There is a deeper level of authentic praise and satisfaction that comes from active learning and excellence work. The natural power that comes from meaningful learning is an intrinsic feeling that is transferable for children for the rest of their life.

 I believe it is ideal to invite the student to participate in understanding and creating the goals of their learning. Often in my reading and observation of classrooms, the students are just informed of their learning goals. They are put up on a poster or given as a rubric to the students. Are we not just repeating traditional assessment then under a new name and format? This process paints a picture of student involvement or student centered assessment, but still see the teacher or the other as the true source of assessment. Just informing the students of the “standards” to be reached or outcomes of their study is not enough. We should allow them to be an active part of the conversation and thinking around the what, how and why of their learning.

Also this would help to dissolve the idea that learning goals are finite. I understand the comfort and organizing power of standards, but I think they should be utilized as sign posts or maps of where learning can and might go. I personally believe that rubrics and standards can be as limiting as they are useful. By always dictating the outcomes, we turn our leaning into checklist to be completed, passively learning what is expected of us and never reaching beyond the boundaries of the rubrics or standards.

During my first year of college I was asked to write a persuasive research essay and decided to argue against grading. From the beginning grades were considered merely a tool for the institution not to help learning or the student. I am still confused and frustrated that grades and rubrics are still the main source of assessment.

This is not a new conversation at the cooperative, but one that I am interested in opening back up.

So, Why do you think grades and teacher driven assessment is still so central to school?

What are some simple ways for teachers and students to change this?

How do we start to have the conversation with parents, teachers and students about these issues?



14 thoughts on “Students should be at the center of Authentic Assessment

  1. Here’s a thought: Grades are a way to distinguish the students who understand in the way the teacher deems appropriate/important from those who don’t. The teacher stands as the arbiter of what way of knowing is most desirable culturally. When students are not invested in being/becoming active participants in ‘culture-at-large’ as represented by the teacher/public school institution/etc., the grades lose their relevance in that they represent the degree to which students have assimilated into the culture. So, is the real problem grading, or is the problem a lack of student investment (emotionally, intellectually) in the culture they will be inheriting…?

    Posted by Dana Gross | September 17, 2011, 9:38 pm
  2. That is a interesting question, Do you think students should be invested?

    I guess I would say they should not be inheriting so much as revising, critiquing the past and creating, and invention the present and future. Therefore, students should be a the center of what is taught, the teacher can help present the past/present for revision, and sharing the “wisdom” or achievement of the past….as not to have reinvent the wheel in each generation….

    School should be seen as a place to help human evolve…. not sure grading would be needed there, nor teacher driven assessment.

    hmm….still thinking.


    Posted by dloitz | September 17, 2011, 9:49 pm
  3. I think it’s up to the students whether or not they want to ‘buy in’ to the current culture. Also, I agree that they should be actively creating the present/future, as ‘conscious co-creators of reality’, and that schools/teachers should be encouraging this. Whether or not grading is necessary for this, I’m not sure. But w/o a system to evaluate an individual’s progress/process, aren’t we inhabiting a relativistic world where everything is of equal value? I’m not sure that is a present/future that is beneficial, although I could be wrong. All of which is to say, I don’t necessarily see grading as the problem, as grading is a vehicle for evaluating. Perhaps we are evaluating the wrong things, and maybe more importantly the task of evaluating should not be the responsibility solely of the ‘teacher’, but should be instead a collaboration between teacher(s) and learner(s)…?

    Posted by Dana Gross | September 17, 2011, 10:51 pm
  4. David,

    I am with you, man. Thanks for this post.

    The phrase “authentic assessment” has been bandied about since I entered the profession, and I have seen plenty of assessment but I have yet to see much authenticity anywhere.

    Is the phrase in fact an oxymoron?

    “Authenticity” to me touches on Buber’s “ich-du” relationship, the deepest part of self reaching out to commune with the essential truth of other. This authentic encounter is a goal (even if rarely achieved) in my teaching.

    “Assessment”, at least how it’s generally used, refers to one adult awarding or withholding approval, along a continuum for a child’s performance. It seems that the goal must be to manipulate or coerce the learner’s behavior or performance or thinking towards the desired outcome. If this isn’t the overt goal, then surely, we can’t deny that it is the unintended outcome.

    Authenticity validates self, assessment corrupts and distorts self. Though it is a catchy phrase, how could assessment possibly be authentic?

    That said, I have challenged myself and my staff this year to come up with some form of documentation (not so sure that this phrase is any better) that provides a meaningful picture of a child at a particular moment, and can become the basis of noting meaningful change and growth over time. Drawing heavily from a Reggio Emelia approach, I hope, for a small pilot group of students, we will be assembling portfolios, with significant students’ input. At the very least these portfolios will include, photos, transcribed interviews, samples of work, art projects, and short videos of the student as they engage in physical activities (dance, sports, yoga), service projects, play at recess, and quiet contemplation. Each piece selected will include a short student reflection explaining why the student chose to include this piece and what it shows about them. At the end there will be a narrative from parent, student and child as each is asked to paint a picture of them with words as a learner and as a whole person.

    I expect this to be super time-consuming if we do it well. We are beginning with just four students school-wide. But I hope we will find ways to streamline the process and select the most important features so that it might be possible eventually to use a similar approach to assessing or documenting all students’ progress. We’ll see…


    Posted by Paul Freedman | September 18, 2011, 10:25 am
  5. Assessment should be relational. It should be a conversation between students and teachers. Sometimes the system requires a little structure (a portfolio, a student-teacher conference, a quick conversation, a blog comment, a student-teacher designed rubric) and I’m not sure the structure is all bad. What makes it “authentic” is the question of who is making the decisions about the assessment. Is it truly student-led? Do the students have the ability to customize assessment so that they can explain their learning in their own ways? Do the students get to choose the methods as well as the content? Are they explaining their processes, the connections, etc.? Bottom line: Are the students in charge of their own assessment?

    Assessment is something we do naturally in our lives. We think about our learning. We share it with others. We question and critique. It is individual and social, explanatory and analytical, critical and celebratory. It’s a mystery and a challenge whether one does it within the system or outside of it.

    Posted by John T. Spencer | September 18, 2011, 11:02 am
  6. I think Alan’s new post is a perfect example of what much “assessment” does to learning.

    Here is a link to his post, as I think these conversations are similar!


    Posted by dloitz | September 18, 2011, 5:26 pm
  7. David, our division is moving towards performance assessments that should, in theory, be more authentic than our state tests. Our central administration very much wants assessments that demonstrate students’ work and college readiness. Theoretically, as we get better at not designing such assessments – as we get better at creating spaces and opportunities that let students project-manage and problem-solve – we’ll create schools of more authentic work.

    Our school board wants to see data regarding these performance assessments, rather than standardized testing data.

    What’s the right amount of – or structure for – administrative oversight of authentic assessment?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | September 18, 2011, 8:08 pm
  8. that is a good questions. Data is so tricky, and it so many people still live by finite ideas of success. I love John’s take on assessment. Any assessment that moves away from the standardized testing bs is a step in the right direction. I don’t think we can just remove assessment from the top down….because it will just look extreme and not help anything in the long run.

    You might also check out the Hope Survey, it is suppose to be more holistic approach to assessment of schools.

    Also check out IDEA’s Eduvaction Library, there are some great resources there on more holistic and authentic assessment including their school survey.

    I will try to get links up soon!


    Posted by dloitz | September 18, 2011, 8:18 pm
  9. I wanted to point people towards a similar conversation happening over at Joe Bower’s blog.


    Posted by dloitz | September 20, 2011, 12:58 am
    • unfortunately, change os slow and there are no “simple” ways to get teachers to change…i got an “accelerated” transformation by being in the twitterspehre and on blogs, getting hip to things i might have never seen or learned slower….

      i was going to suggest joe’s blog….he’s got great stuff on “un-grading,” too…i instantly thought of him when i was reading the post

      Posted by iteach4change | December 14, 2011, 11:11 pm
  10. Balance between authoritative or ‘hard knowledge’ and (what may be) our innate sense of authenticity of ‘human-ness’ seems to be lacking. Should we transpose the positions of authority and authenticity, authenticity will become “neo-authority” and we will face an inversion of this conundrum.

    2+2 does = 4 (unless one uses base 3, 4, or another base), and the sense of wonder and awe humans experience does not directly correlate to any numbers.

    I seem unable to conceive of a situation in which Either/Or will work, and suggest the answer resides in a “third” or “interstitial” space that exists between.

    BUT — who decides where the balance point happens to be?

    Posted by Brent Snavely | September 20, 2011, 8:15 am
  11. David, Beyond the many, many conversations we’ve had here and elsewhere about the effect of grades in a factory model system, based on custody and compliance, here’s a larger question.

    Have you been in a learning situation where external measures or expectations–of whatever kind–actually helped you learn more, prompted you to go to a place you hadn’t or wouldn’t have gone before? Where the external measure was a useful scaffold for your learning?

    I am interested in yours’, and everyone’s response to this. It is at the root of creating a more powerful system of assessment, and a more complex vision of learning.

    Thank you for this post,


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | September 20, 2011, 8:37 am
  12. We have been having these discussions among our staff. We had Whole Student Reports that included Guide and Student narratives for each section. We didn’t have letter grades, but used a check-plus, check, & delta system to represent “expert”, “emerging with support” and “novice” respectively. I was never really comfortable giving a student these marks. After hearing Alfie Kohn speak about grades, I felt that we needed to get rid of the check-delta system.

    As a parent with students in the school, I was also able to see that my own kids didn’t really pay attention to the narrative part of the report, but just to whether they got their check-plus. So I made copies of some articles and brought it up for discussion in our guide circle.

    Our Guide Circle was not quite ready to make the leap, but the next year (this fall), people were ready. I had started doing it on my own in my class for individual assignments. I would have discussions, share some feedback and questioning, but I didn’t give out “marks”.

    Last summer our guide circle proposed the removal of the check delta system to have just student and guide narratives to the trustee circle. The trustees approved the change. It’s been time consuming to write narratives and we have had professional development to work on the narratives to make sure the enough information is included. There has been a significant improvement to the narratives and I am hopeful that we can continue this process. I am thankful to Alfie Kohn’s work on this topic, because he was really an inspiration to me in feeling confident that we could do a better job for our students.

    Posted by kaseyerrico | March 25, 2012, 2:02 pm


  1. Pingback: Students should be at the center of Authentic Assessment | Cooperative Catalyst | - September 18, 2011

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