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Authentic Vs. Standardized Assessment Protocol

Successful educators behave in ways that might look more familiar in a doctor’s office. Many of the same practices and procedures used by physicians can be seen in healthy and successful classrooms. There are the immediately apparent similarities, such as the bottles of hand-sanitizer thoughtfully placed to maximize usage, or the Kleenex boxes on nearly every cabinet, shelf, and table. But there are other homologous behaviors that might be less obvious at first glance. One of these is the use of authentic assessment protocols. Let us compare a standard assessment, such as the ones used in many large school districts, with the authentic style of assessment used by some educators, and a great many physicians.  

A standardized assessment, such as the SAT or the OAKS, uses a simple binary system to determine competency in various content areas. For example, the test might contain one or more items related to a student’s understanding of place value number systems. Each of these questions would be answered using a multiple-choice format, and aptitude would be measured by determining whether students answered “correctly” or “incorrectly” on the several items related to place value. Often, these items are folded in with other mathematical content items, such as geometric reasoning, computational fluency, and algebraic manipulation. Most often scores are reported in a simple numeric format based on the entirety of the test, such as 2200/2400 for an SAT score, or 2833/3457 on the OAKS mathematics section. What is the utility of such an assessment tool?

Standardizing an examination allows administration within a school, and districts more generally, to compare groups of students to one another. I might, for example, use the standardized scores to compare whether K-8 schools out-performed K-5 with separate middle schools. However, because scores on standardized exams are most often reported as simple numerical summations, they lack the specificity required to say much about any individual student. What for example, can we say about a student’s understanding of place value if they got 2833 on the OAKS? Further standard exams are often administered only once per year, and therefore lack the robustness of multiple trial testing. When taken only once, variables such as a lack of breakfast, a stressor early in the day, or a poor night’s sleep can influence a student’s score more profoundly than their understanding of place value. All successful educators are aware of this, and take standardized scores with a grain of salt, paying more attention to more authentic styles of assessment.

The major difference between standardized and authentic assessments is how they are scored. While authentic assessments can take a variety of forms, let us focus on how an educator might use a multiple-choice examination like the ones used in standardized exams to conduct an authentic assessment. The administration of the test might begin similarly to the way a standardized exam would. Students may take the test all at the same time and receive no or minimal assistance in completing their test. But upon completion, an educator will try to identify what precisely resulted in both “correct” and “incorrect” responses. For example, let’s say 2 students are supposed to add the fractions ¾+⅖ and one selects the answer 5/9 while the other selects 25/20. On a standardized examination, both of these students would receive the same “incorrect” score on this item, but an authentic assessment is concerned with how the students arrived at these answers. Did they simply add across top and bottom as it appears in the first answer? Did they guess randomly? Or was it a simple computation error?

Once an educator has identified what resulted in the answer, they can then see what information students need in order to self-correct. Perhaps a student was unable to identify the y-intercept from a graph, an educator might see if simply supplying a definition of y-intercept is sufficient for the student to self-correct, or whether more extensive instruction in Cartesian coordinate graphing is necessary. It is this follow-up, first to identify what caused the student to respond in the way they did, and second to identify the necessary remedies that ought to look familiar to any doctor. When we are concerned with the health of the individual, academically or medically, rather than the population at large, we require the use of authentic assessment protocols.

Just like in medical settings, good educators use authentic assessment measures, given using standard instruments, but scored using dynamic and responsive practices. Instead of simply taking the numbers from any one test to indicate a person’s health, in essence boiling them down to a set of gathered data points, good doctors and good educators alike take a comprehensive approach to health that involves a thorough understanding of what is causing the problem in the first place, and what minimal intervention is necessary to return a person to health. It is only through this responsive practice that we can efficiently and effectively provide the assistance for which we are sought. Health and learning do not require the assistance of doctors or teachers to exist. It is, rather, identifying the impediments to health and the appropriate remedies, in a way that no individual can do for themselves, which requires training, artistry, and authentic assessment.

David Ley

Executive Director/Educator   

John WartonComment