Authentic Assessment: What, Why, and How?

Last night, Oklahoma’s Governor vetoed Senate Bill 2, a bill that would repeal the requirement that all Oklahoma high school students take a standardized, multiple choice U.S. history exam.  I expected this to be signed by the Governor because last year a bill repealing the other end of instruction exams sailed through the legislature and was signed.  My disappointment in keeping the U.S. History exam is not due to a fear of or disdain for assessment.  On the contrary, I am a huge proponent of assessment (and this is one of my areas of expertise), but I am not a fan of standardized multiple choice exams.  Why?

1) Filling in bubbles tells us very little about what students actually know and can do.  It may tell us a great deal about a student’s ability to guess or memorize.

2) Very few multiple choice exams are well-written, including questions that actually require higher level of Bloom’s taxonomy (analysis, synthesis, etc.).

3) And, just to shout on the internet for a moment: LIFE IS NOT MULTIPLE CHOICE.  Multiple choice exams do not give students an opportunity to show us how what they have learned matters in the world outside the classroom.

The great news is that we are not stuck with standardized, one-size-fits-all multiple choice exams!  Instead, I’m a proponent of authentic assessment.  What is authentic assessment?

“…Engaging and worthy problems or questions of importance, in which students must use knowledge to fashion performances effectively and creatively. The tasks are 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)

So, according to education guru Grant Wiggins, authentic assessment includes:

1) Questions or problems that are engaging and important (how many of those have you seen recently on a standardized multiple choice exam?).

2) Students’ application of what they have learned to a performance-based task.

3) Tasks that represent what adults are expected to do.

As we discussed the veto of SB 2 last night, my husband (a high school U.S. history teacher) asked what I would create to replace the U.S History exam.  I was just waiting for that question!  OK history teachers could get together to design a rubric that reflects the standards and then create several assignments that require the same content (but could be different in form to provide room for teacher creativity and autonomy and student choice).  Representative samples of student work would be selected each year from a representative sample of OK high schools and the work would be assessed by a panel of OK history teachers.  This process would result in a much deeper understanding of what OK students know about U.S. history and, even more importantly, what they can do with that knowledge.

In higher ed, there is an on-going experiment called the Multi-State Collaborative that is similar to what is described above.  Rubrics were developed in content and skill areas by faculty from across the nation and are now being utilized to evaluate student work, creating comparisons within and among campuses without the use of standardized exams.

The overall impact of moving away from standardized multiple-choice exams is seen in classrooms because teachers no longer have to teach to the test, but are freed to think creatively about the types of summative assessments that will give students an opportunity to use what they have learned.  Authentic assessments improve student engagement, deepen student learning, and give teachers greater autonomy.  It’s a win-win-win!



Wiggins, G. (1993). Assessing student performance. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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