Authentic assessment is a way of assessing student learning by having students apply what they learned to real-life scenarios. The goal is for students to demonstrate they have learned the material by transferring classroom knowledge to situations that resemble the outside world.
So, the teacher creates various situations that mimic those found in everyday life and then the student is observed applying their knowledge to that situation.
Meet the Peer Reviewer: The review process onHelpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. This article was written by Dr Dave Cornell and peer reviewed by Dr Chris Drew. Learn more about Chris Drew here.
Authentic Assessment Definition
Authentic assessment emerged as a counterpoint to the rise of norm-referenced standardized testing in the 1980s onward.
Generally, the key scholars cited when discussing authentic assessment are Archbald and Newmann (1989). Newmann defines it like this:
“…the extent to which a lesson, assessment task, or sample of student performance represents construction of knowledge through the use of disciplined inquiry that has some value or meaning beyond success in school” (Newmann, 1997, p. 361)
Here the key idea is that the assessment is linked to out-of-school application of knowledge rather than simply summative assessments in the form of purely theoretical and standardized tests.
The Strength of Authentic Assessment
The central strength of authentic assessment is that it encourages educators to focus on application of knowledge at school to real life. It aims to work against the narrative that school doesn’t prepare students for the real world.
Reinforcing this point, Wiggins argues that authentic assessment tasks are all about applicability to the world beyond school:
“The tasks [in authentic assessment should be] either replicas of or analogous to the kinds of problems faced by adult citizens and consumers or professionals in the field” (Wiggins, 1993, p. 229)
Traditional assessment techniques such as quizzes and exams are useful ways to assess memory of basic facts and concepts. However, authentic assessment is a way to evaluate if students can put that knowledge to use to solve a real-world problem.
Peer Reviewer’s Note: I would add to these points that authentic assessment is biased toward active learning rather than passive learning, which is known to strongly support learning and retention. Wiggins (who Dr. Cornell quotes above) also emphasizes the ways authentic assessments tend to require creative thinking, which is an excellent transferrable skill.
Critiques of Authentic Assessment
- Lack of Clear Definition of Authenticity: Authentic assessment sounds like a great concept, but critics often highlight that the idea lacks clarity. There are few systematic explanations of how an assessment is authentic.
Peer Reviewer’s Note: I would agree with this critique. For example, Palm (2008, p. 5) notes that “authentic assessment can mean almost anything.” If it means ‘almost anything’, then it doesn’t mean much at all.
- Quality of Assessment is Questionable; If teachers use authentic assessment as a turn away from norm-referenced standardized tests, then the rigor and testability of student assessment may be lost. There are no clear guidelines on how to measure or grade an ‘authentic’ assessment piece.
- Authenticity is not always Achieved: It is also questionable as to whether an assessment is truly authentic just because it mirrors a real-life scenario. A flight simulator may be considered more authentic than a theoretical test about how to fly a plane, but it is by no means an authentic experience in the same way as actually flying an airplane.
Authentic Assessment Examples
- Creating models: A physics teacher has students work in teams to design and construct a paper bridge and then see how much weight it can support.
- Using scenarios from the workforce: The final exam in a radiology course involves students being given a set of 5 X-rays that they have to sort in terms of priority of treatment.
- Engaging with the profession: A business administration professor may require students to construct their own employee satisfaction survey, collect data, and produce 3 graphs that display the key findings.
- Pitching ideas to professionals: Advertising majors are required to design a comprehensive ad campaign for the product of their choice and then pitch it to a small group of faculty.
- Demonstrating practical skills: Music majors are required to give a recital at the end of the course as part of their final exam.
- Engaging in mock-up scenarios: Students in a criminology course are taken to a mock crime scene and tasked with looking for clues and formulating an initial theory of what happened.
- Creating reports on real life scenarios: Students in a home economics course make a comprehensive budget for a middle-class family of five that includes all utility bills, insurance fees and taxes, and disposable income allocations.
- Creating a valuable program or app: Computer science majors are given a specific period of time to program a cyber-security firewall that can stop at least 3 out of 5 viruses set to attack their computer.
- Collecting samples from the field: Biology students are sent into the field where they must collect three soil samples at different locations on a farm and then analyze the nitrate and phosphorous levels of each sample.
- Getting real customers: Instead of just creating a business plan, going the next step and creating the business and getting real customers, then being assessed on implementation rather than just planning.
1. Mock Trial
Learning about statutes in a university course on criminal law can be tedious, and grueling. There is a ton of case law to read and grades can be based on writing a lot of papers. However, integrating authentic assessment can be a way for students to practice their skills in a life-like situation.
For example, the professor divides the class into teams of three. Each team is given the same details of a criminal law case and then assigned to play the role of prosecution or defense. Of course, the professor will play the role of judge.
After two weeks of preparation, the students participate in a mock trial.
Each side gets to present their case, call witnesses, and conduct questioning.
This kind of mock trial can become as complex as time will allow. That can range from a short and simple presentation of arguments, to an event that involves every step of the process, from jury selection, to the preparation of courtroom exhibits and closing arguments.
Memorizing case law is one form of learning, but applying that law to the courtroom requires a completely different set of skills.
2. Comic Strip Adaptation
Comic books have made a comeback in the lives of teenagers. The interesting color schemes, artistic style, and action-oriented illustrations capture the attention of youth today.
That presents an opportunity for teachers. For example, a language arts teacher may assign a short story reading about a historical event or current affair.
These topics might be boring to some students, but when the teacher announces that the assignment involves students making their own comic books that portray those historical events, faces start to brighten-up.
The teacher explains that students will work in small groups and make a short comic book about the event they learned about. The number of pages are specified as well as other requirements regarding historical accuracy and the citing of facts, but beyond that, it’s up to the students.
This is an example of students taking information and knowledge they have learned in one medium, and then transferring it to another.
Peer Reviewer’s Note: I agree that most advocates of authentic learning would call this “authentic” because it fits into the idea that the assessment is related to application of ideas; although it’s also interesting to note that the definition of “authentic” might not be fully met in this example. All of this would likely still occur in the classroom and not be linked to skills used by professionals in the workforce. It’s important for teachers to be able to critique this concept of ‘authenticity’, which I find problematic in this theory.
3. Anthropology Class
Believe it or not, anthropology students need to know a lot about human anatomy. The chemical composition of a skeleton can reveal a lot about the living environment and dietary intake of the person’s life when they were alive.
To put students’ knowledge of skeletal anatomy to the test, an anthropology professor has buried various bones in a designated location on campus. The bones come from both male and female skeletons, young and old, and different ethnicities. Just for fun, the prof throws in a few animal bones too, just to make things interesting.
The students work in groups, are assigned different plots, and given a specific period of time to unearth the bones, examine them thoroughly, and identify the designated characteristics.
Grades can be based on accuracy and how long it took for each team to complete the task. However, any team that mistook an animal femur for a human’s automatically fails.
4. Writing Employment Ads
After completing the chapter on job descriptions in an HR course, the instructor gives the students a true test of their understanding. They are to assume they work for the government and must write a job description and employment ad for a given job.
First, the class is broken down into small groups. Then, various job titles are written on slips of paper, folded, and placed in a hat. Each group selects a slip of paper and then gets started.
The assignment sounds simple enough and most groups finish within t0 minutes. They turn in their assignment and get to leave class early. However, one group seems to be taking a bit longer. The instructor investigates.
That group decides that their first step is to find a full and detailed job description from the appropriate government department, the pay scale schedule for that government position, and study the federal guidelines on equal employment from the EEOC. They finish the assignment just in time.
At the next class, the instructor reveals that all groups failed the assignment except for the last one. The failing groups wrote ads that contained statements that are illegal and violate EEOC guidelines.
As the professor explained, had those ads actually been published, the company would have been sued for discriminatory practices and the head of HR most likely fired.
5. Healthy Habits Program
Being healthy is about more than just eating right and getting some exercise. It also includes establishing good sleep habits, developing a social support system, and a positive perspective on life.
So, students in nutrition, physical education, and health psychology courses are assigned a collaborative project. By working in small teams, they are to design a comprehensive Healthy Habits program for middle schools.
The program must contain several key components of health: physical, emotional, intellectual, social, and spiritual. Assessment of outcomes must include a rubric of both physical and psychological domains.
The students are given until the end of the academic term to design their programs and grades will be determined through peer assessment.
Peer Reviewer’s Note: Again with this example, I’d push even further: can the students go beyond just designing the program and even actually implement it in their lives? Would that be “more authentic”? Notably, with authentic assessment, as Dr. Cornell noted earlier, there’s always this nagging question: how authentic does it have to be?
Authentic assessment takes a very pragmatic approach to evaluating student outcomes. Instead of asking students to repeat memorized facts or write abstract essays, they are tasked with demonstrating skills.
Teachers create situations that resemble those often encountered in an actual job, and the students attempt to resolve whatever challenges exist in that situation. Grades are based on observed performance.
Any type of course can include authentic assessment. Law students might perform in a mock trial, anthropology students may need to dig up a few bones and identify who they belong to, or students in an HR course may have to construct their own employee satisfaction survey. However, it is questionable as to whether authentic assessments can also be formal assessments or exams that can be administered en masse to compare students’ performances.
Archbald, D. & Newmann, F. (1989) “The Functions of Assessment and the Nature of Authentic Academic Achievement,” in Berlak (ed.) Assessing Achievement: Toward the development of a New Science of Educational Testing. Buffalo, NY: SUNY Press.
Ashford-Rowe, K., Herrington, J., & Brown, C. (2014). Establishing the critical elements that determine authentic assessment. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 39(2), 205-222.
Cumming, J.J. & Maxwell, G.S. (1999). Contextualizing authentic assessment. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policies, and Practices, 6(2), 177-194.
Newmann, F.M. (1997). Authentic assessment in social studies: Standards and examples. In G.D. Phye (Ed.), Handbook of classroom assessment: Learning, adjustment and achievement. San Diego, Ca: Academic Press.
Palm, T. (2008). Performance assessment and authentic assessment: A conceptual analysis of the literature.Practical Assessment, Research, and Evaluation,13(1), 4.
Wiggins, G. P. (1993). Assessing student performance. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Koh, K., Tan, C., & Ng, P. T. (2012). Creating thinking schools through authentic assessment: The case in Singapore. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 24(2), 135-149. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11092-011-9138-y
Chris Drew (PhD)
This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.
Dave Cornell (PhD)
Dr. Cornell has worked in education for more than 20 years. His work has involved designing teacher certification for Trinity College in London and in-service training for state governments in the United States. He has trained kindergarten teachers in 8 countries and helped businessmen and women open baby centers and kindergartens in 3 countries.