Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Case for Authentic Assessment

Wiggins, Grant (1990). The case for authentic assessment. Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation, 2(2).

I read this article because one of the questions I am struggling with for my action research is how much time I want to spend prepping students to do well on standardized mathematics tests next.  Especially when 'doing well' means covering an ever increasing breadth of knowledge rather than increasing the depth of their knowledge in a smaller subset of data.  Currently the standardized tsp we take at the 8th grade level can include any of the literally hundred of standards covered in 6th and 7th graded including things like box  and whisker plots.  There is a lot of hope that the new common core standards will cover fewer topics with more depth and that the new standardized test will assess not only breadth but depth.  Even the name "smarter balanced tests" hints at a different approach.

Part of my question relates to how to assess in my own classroom.  The problem based approached, which I plan on using next year, requires students to let go of a 'cram' style of learning.  It attempts to cultivate a desire for and an appreciation of mathematical concepts and not just the procedures derived from them.

Wiggin's article addresses what authentic assessment is and why we need to invest in it.  The article is focusing primarily on state and federal assessments, but these assessments clearly impact how and what we assess on in our own classrooms so it is relevant to my own research as well.  In fact one of Wiggin's arguments against a purely multiple chic type of assessment is not that the content is harmful or invalid but that the form is invalid.  That it promotes an idea of learning that deemphasizes content and does not discriminate between superficial understanding/plug and chug understandings and deeper ones.

I found the educational questions and imperatives more relevant to me that the financial,and feasibility pieces and have not given them much thought.

One questions that the article raised for me what how do authentic assessment address the issue of students who are not fluent with the basic skills let alone the ability to apply the concepts of these skills to more complicated tasks?

I also wonder about Wiggin's argument that multiple choice tests can be valid indicators of academic performance, but mislead teachers and students about what should be mastered.   Does this hold even when the tests show that the basic skills are not being mastered?  I agree that that may not be an adequate indicator of mastery but are they a preliminary indicator of basic understanding?  

His point that it is the form of the test not the content that is harmful to learning is well taken.  It is true that a focus on the importance of doing well on standardized tests leads, or can lead, to certain beliefs about what learning is.  This is especially true when the financial health of the academic institution rests upon the success of these scores.  How do you  balance what you want kids to learn along with the need to perform better on standardized tests this year than we did last year is a difficult and robust problem.  Especially when performing well means she very basic proficiency on a very wide variety of standards.  Balancing the needs of your institutions financial health and it's pedagogical/philosophical health is a difficult and robust problem.  What kinds of decisions are educators making because of the test?  Ben Daley's stance on standardized tests seems to be, do well enough so that we will be left alone.  But that gets complicated too because of the pressure for school's not only to do well each year but also to improve each year.  That requirement, is particularly troubling to me, especially when doing better requires greater breadth and not greater depth.

The biggest takeaway that I have from the article was a parenthetical point that Wiggin's makes early in the article. "(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 purposes of the measurement.)"  I interpret that to mean that there is a place for standardized tests which test procedural fluency, but also more authentic assessments that test the ability of testers to  apply those procedures in an applied an ill structured   and real world-ish context.  There are multiple levels at which we want to assess understanding.  Standardized tests, currently still fail to do this, higher scores generally indicate greater breadth of knowledge, rarely greater depth of knowledge.  Let's make these multiple test portions of the test pass or fail, and once basic proficiency has been reached let us accept that the usefulness of those types of tests has also been reached.

From my perspective as a teacher of mathematics, this 'both' approach seems to make so much sense - at least from an educational standpoint.  I am not concerned right now with the feasibility, reliability or cost of that approach.  My lay opinion is that if it is the right thing to do then we need to make it happen regardless the cost, let success or failure determine feasibility and reliability over time.  

In my own classroom there is certainly room for a both approach, one that increases in depth but also assesses basic procedural fluency.

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