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Authentic Assessment: Where to Start

This text is excerpted from Authentic Assessments for the English Classroom by Joanna Dolgin, Kim Kelly, and Sarvenaz Zelkha, available from NCTE.

To believe in authentic forms of assessment . . . is to believe in your school, teachers, and community and to hold yourself accountable for having high expectations and standards for all students.

The process of shifting toward alternative and authentic assessment from more traditional final exams or paper assignments will no doubt seem easier if you don’t have to bow to the demands of standardized tests. But, even if standardized tests are a reality, as they are for most of us, the process can still be simple. It just requires a shift in thinking about how to approach the tests.

Take a step back and ask yourself what skills students need to succeed on the test.

  • Critical reading?
  • Essay writing?
  • Persuasion?
  • Comparing texts?
  • Literary vocabulary?

These skills can and should be incorporated into any high school English curriculum. Students should demonstrate these skills on any form of assessment, formative or cumulative, traditional or alternative.

It is never an easy process to change from a more traditional structure to something new and different. . . .

The bottom line is that relevant curriculum and authentic assessment can be designed only within the context of your own school, which means it needs to be “site-base, locally controlled” (Huot 178).

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One type of authentic assessment for literature study might include asking students to research and present a talk show in which they play roles as characters.

Our advice: start small and slow. If you are a teacher who wants to convince an administrator that this is a worthy option, design an authentic assessment for an existing unit. If you are reading Their Eyes Were Watching God, have the students take on the roles of different characters, research them and their relationships to the other characters, and create a talk show performance. Invite your administrator. The students will have to demonstrate their knowledge of the characters using evidence from the text and realistically explain their relationships with the other characters. The “host” and audience members will have to ask questions that show their understanding.

A project like this does not have to be high stakes, but it can be a small step toward changing the priorities in your classroom culture and ultimately in your school culture.