Authentic Assessment: approaches and practices

The term ‘authentic assessment’ is likely to unfamiliar to many reading this blog, however, it is a concept that Falchikov (2005) observed ‘appears to be increasingly used in further and higher education’. So what explains this discrepancy? Falchikov herself offers one reason, explaining that ‘my own work… has involved my students in all of the activities [I regard as authentic]. However, I have not used the term ‘authentic’ to describe the type of assessment being carried out.’

In some recent research that Denise Whitelock and I have been doing within the OU we have been examining the concept and practice of authentic assessment – and in particular, how to make visible those assessment approaches associated with concept but not understood as such. It’s been great to have the opportunity to explore the term a little and in this post I hope to outline a few of my initial impressions.

The current use of the term emerges from a discourse around ‘authentic’ and ‘genuine’ testing that had become established by the mid-1980s and which combined with the broader social constructivist project to become part of what Serafini considers to be the most recent of three assessment paradigms: ‘assessment for enquiry’.

The notion of ‘authentic’ certainly appealed to those interested in getting closer to ‘real’, ‘meaningful’ learning and represented an idea with an innate capacity to help problematise traditional assessment practice. Early definitions include Wiggins who defines it as ‘[the extent to which] student experience questions and tasks under constraints as they typically and ‘naturally’ occur, with access to the tools that are usually available for solving such problems’, Newmann et al. (1996), and Torrance who suggests ‘[it is the] assessment tasks designed for students should be more practical, realistic and challenging than what one might call ‘traditional’’ and that it is ‘a generic term… to describe a range of new approaches to assessment.’

By 2000, overlapping interpretations of what authentic assessment meant and authentic assessment tasks comprised of were emerging (e.g. McTighe and Wiggins (1999) and the review by Cummings et al.). There were also efforts to instantiate these in to guidance or advice on designing authentic assessment tasks (Darling-Hammond & Snyder; Williams; Hughes) or integrating the idea of authenticity in to principles for instruction (for example, Merrill).

The upshot of this is a range of emphasis and interpretations about what ‘authentic’ means (sometimes in respect to particular disciplines) and what constitutes an ‘authentic’ assessment task. In the itemised paragraphs below I attempt to identify some of the components of the authentic assessment discourse. Read more of this post