ERIC Identifier: ED328611
Publication Date: 1990-12-00
Author: Wiggins, Grant
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Tests Measurement and Evaluation
Washington DC., American Institutes for Research Washington DC.
The Case for Authentic Assessment. ERIC Digest.
Mr. Wiggins, a researcher and consultant on school reform issues, is
a widely-known advocate of authentic assessment in education. This digest
is based on materials that he prepared for the California Assessment Program.
WHAT IS AUTHENTIC ASSESSMENT?
Assessment is authentic when we directly examine student performance
on worthy intellectual tasks. Traditional assessment, by contract, relies
on indirect or proxy 'items'--efficient, simplistic substitutes from which
we think valid inferences can be made about the student's performance at
those valued challenges.
Do we want to evaluate student problem-posing and problem-solving in
mathematics? experimental research in science? speaking, listening, and
facilitating a discussion? doing document-based historical inquiry? thoroughly
revising a piece of imaginative writing until it "works" for the reader?
Then let our assessment be built out of such exemplary intellectual challenges.
Further comparisons with traditional standardized tests will help to
clarify what "authenticity" means when considering assessment design and
* Authentic assessments require students to be effective performers
with acquired knowledge. Traditional tests tend to reveal only whether
the student can recognize, recall or "plug in" what was learned out of
context. This may be as problematic as inferring driving or teaching ability
from written tests alone. (Note, therefore, that the debate is not "either-or":
there may well be virtue in an array of local and state assessment instruments
as befits the purpose of the measurement.)
* Authentic assessments present the student with the full array of tasks
that mirror the priorities and challenges found in the best instructional
activities: conducting research; writing, revising and discussing papers;
providing an engaging oral analysis of a recent political event; collaborating
with others on a debate, etc. Conventional tests are usually limited to
paper-and-pencil, one- answer questions.
* Authentic assessments attend to whether the student can craft polished,
thorough and justifiable answers, performances or products. Conventional
tests typically only ask the student to select or write correct responses--irrespective
of reasons. (There is rarely an adequate opportunity to plan, revise and
substantiate responses on typical tests, even when there are open-ended
questions). As a result,
* Authentic assessment achieves validity and reliability by emphasizing
and standardizing the appropriate criteria for scoring such (varied) products;
traditional testing standardizes objective "items" and, hence, the (one)
right answer for each.
* "Test validity" should depend in part upon whether the test simulates
real-world "tests" of ability. Validity on most multiple-choice tests is
determined merely by matching items to the curriculum content (or through
sophisticated correlations with other test results).
* Authentic tasks involve "ill-structured" challenges and roles that
help students rehearse for the complex ambiguities of the "game" of adult
and professional life. Traditional tests are more like drills, assessing
static and too-often arbitrarily discrete or simplistic elements of those
Beyond these technical considerations the move to reform assessment
is based upon the premise that assessment should primarily support the
needs of learners. Thus, secretive tests composed of proxy items and scores
that have no obvious meaning or usefulness undermine teachers' ability
to improve instruction and students' ability to improve their performance.
We rehearse for and teach to authentic tests--think of music and military
training--without compromising validity.
The best tests always teach students and teachers alike the kind of
work that most matters; they are enabling and forward-looking, not just
reflective of prior teaching. In many colleges and all professional settings
the essential challenges are known in advance--the upcoming report, recital,
Board presentation, legal case, book to write, etc. Traditional tests,
by requiring complete secrecy for their validity, make it difficult for
teachers and students to rehearse and gain the confidence that comes from
knowing their performance obligations. (A known challenge also makes it
possible to hold all students to higher standards).
WHY DO WE NEED TO INVEST IN THESE LABOR-INTENSIVE FORMS OF ASSESSMENT?
While multiple-choice tests can be valid indicators or predictors of
academic performance, too often our tests mislead students and teachers
about the kinds of work that should be mastered. Norms are not standards;
items are not real problems; right answers are not rationales.
What most defenders of traditional tests fail to see is that it is the
form, not the content of the test that is harmful to learning; demonstrations
of the technical validity of standardized tests should not be the issue
in the assessment reform debate. Students come to believe that learning
is cramming; teachers come to believe that tests are after-the-fact, imposed
nuisances composed of contrived questions--irrelevant to their intent and
success. Both parties are led to believe that right answers matter more
than habits of mind and the justification of one's approach and results.
A move toward more authentic tasks and outcomes thus improves teaching
and learning: students have greater clarity about their obligations (and
are asked to master more engaging tasks), and teachers can come to believe
that assessment results are both meaningful and useful for improving instruction.
If our aim is merely to monitor performance then conventional testing
is probably adequate. If our aim is to improve performance across the board
then the tests must be composed of exemplary tasks, criteria and standards.
WON'T AUTHENTIC ASSESSMENT BE TOO EXPENSIVE AND TIME-CONSUMING?
The costs are deceptive: while the scoring of judgment-based tasks seems
expensive when compared to multiple-choice tests (about $2 per student
vs. 1 cent) the gains to teacher professional development, local assessing,
and student learning are many. As states like California and New York have
found (with their writing and hands-on science tests) significant improvements
occur locally in the teaching and assessing of writing and science when
teachers become involved and invested in the scoring process.
If costs prove prohibitive, sampling may well be the appropriate response--the
strategy employed in California, Vermont and Connecticut in their new performance
and portfolio assessment projects. Whether through a sampling of many writing
genres, where each student gets one prompt only; or through sampling a
small number of all student papers and school-wide portfolios; or through
assessing only a small sample of students, valuable information is gained
at a minimum cost.
And what have we gained by failing to adequately assess all the capacities
and outcomes we profess to value simply because it is time-consuming, expensive,
or labor-intensive? Most other countries routinely ask students to respond
orally and in writing on their major tests--the same countries that outperform
us on international comparisons. Money, time and training are routinely
set aside to insure that assessment is of high quality. They also correctly
assume that high standards depend on the quality of day-to-day local assessment--further
offsetting the apparent high cost of training teachers to score student
work in regional or national assessments.
WILL THE PUBLIC HAVE ANY FAITH IN THE OBJECTIVITY AND RELIABILITY
OF JUDGMENT-BASED SCORES?
We forget that numerous state and national testing programs with a high
degree of credibility and integrity have for many years operated using
* the New York Regents exams, parts of which have included essay questions
since their inception--and which are scored locally (while audited by the
* the Advanced Placement program which uses open-ended questions and
tasks, including not only essays on most tests but the performance-based
tests in the Art Portfolio and Foreign Language exams;
* state-wide writing assessments in two dozen states where model papers,
training of readers, papers read "blind" and procedures to prevent bias
and drift gain adequate reliability;
* the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the Congressionally-mandated
assessment, uses numerous open-ended test questions and writing prompts
(and successfully piloted a hands-on test of science performance);
* newly-mandated performance-based and portfolio-based state-wide testing
in Arizona, California, Connecticut, Kentucky, Maryland, and New York.
Though the scoring of standardized tests is not subject to significant
error, the procedure by which items are chosen, and the manner in which
norms or cut-scores are established is often quite subjective--and typically
immune from public scrutiny and oversight.
Genuine accountability does not avoid human judgment. We monitor and
improve judgment through training sessions, model performances used as
exemplars, audit and oversight policies as well as through such basic procedures
as having disinterested judges review student work "blind" to the name
or experience of the student--as occurs routinely throughout the professional,
athletic and artistic worlds in the judging of performance.
Authentic assessment also has the advantage of providing parents and
community members with directly observable products and understandable
evidence concerning their students' performance; the quality of student
work is more discernible to laypersons than when we must rely on translations
of talk about stanines and renorming.
Ultimately, as the researcher Lauren Resnick has put it, What you assess
is what you get; if you don't test it you won't get it. To improve student
performance we must recognize that essential intellectual abilities are
falling through the cracks of conventional testing.
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.
Frederiksen, J. & Collins, A. (1989) "A Systems Approach to Educational
Testing," Educational Researcher, 18, 9 (December).
National Commission on Testing and Public Policy (1990) From Gatekeeper
to Gateway: Transforming Testing in America. Chestnut Hill, MA: NCTPP,
Wiggins, G. (1989) "A True Test: Toward More Authentic and Equitable
Assessment," Phi Delta Kappan, 70, 9 (May).
Wolf, D. (1989) "Portfolio Assessment: Sampling Student Work," Educational
Leadership 46, 7, pp. 35-39 (April).