September 27, 2018

Learning and Improving with Authentic Assessment

Quest Forward Learning enables students to become active, lifelong learners who bring value to their work and community. One way we support this is by providing opportunities for students to actively develop and apply the mindset, habits, and skills through the work they complete in quests. The quests and activities students participate in—and their resulting artifacts—create prime opportunities for authentic assessment and constructive feedback from mentors. Quest Forward Learning emphasizes authentic assessment over tests and quizzes, and improvement on skills and habits over letter grades or points.

Why do we exclude tests, quizzes, and grades, when they are a significant part of the education landscape? Consider these points:

  • Exams and quizzes send the wrong messages to students about what it means to learn, what is most important to learn, and the identity of the learners themselves. Tests and their results emphasize competition with others, that there are either right or wrong answers, and that learning has an endpoint (i.e., an “A” or 100%).
  • Grades and grade-oriented environments are associated with reduced interest, motivation, and the quality of student thinking. One reason for this is that students focus more on scores and grades than the actual process of learning.
  • Grades are also associated with cheating, a fear of failure, and a preference for the easiest possible task.  This might include doing the minimum amount of work in order to get an A, for example.

Authentic assessment, on the other hand, provides insights into student learning while also supporting the feedback loop, by helping students learn as part of the assessment process. Authentic assessment also focuses on applying and improving relevant skills and habits.

What is “Authentic Assessment”?

Here are some of the ways in which authentic assessment is defined:

  1. Students are active participants in authentic assessment. They “construct an answer, produce a product, or perform an activity” that demonstrates proficiency in response to a challenge or problem.
  2. Authentic assessment is evidence-based and embedded into the work students are already doing, such as projects that are built into the curriculum. This contrasts with typical tests, which are given to students at the end of a chapter or unit.
  3. Authentic assessment is FOR learning. It is not a judgement OF learning. Authentic assessment supports the feedback loop and help students improve.

Projects or activities that involve real-world constraints and problems, which are built into quests, are ideal opportunities for authentic assessment. These are complex in nature, may not have one right answer, and require skills and knowledge. The result is a product or performance that forms the basis for assessment. For example, students participating in OE’s interdisciplinary Gardening course learn about gardens, soil composition, the impacts of climate and environment on food production, and the design and engineering process involved in cultivating a productive vegetable garden. During this course, students apply new knowledge and skills to design a garden bed ideal for their local environment. This is a rich opportunity to reflect on each student’s development of skills and habits and to provide feedback for improvement.

Authentic Assessment in Quest Forward Learning

Assessment in Quest Forward Learning is focused on students gaining essential habits and skills. While working on quests, students create artifacts and notes, as well as participate in activities and discussions. They also complete course projects that are curated and added to portfolios. All of these examples are opportunities that provide students with feedback to both nurture improvement and measure growth as it relates to skills and habits. At Opportunity Education, we provide many avenues for student reflection, as well as for mentors to provide feedback, including check-ins, skills checks, and habit reviews.

Check-ins. Some quest activities are designated as “check-ins.” These check-ins are intended to spark discussion and questions, as well as promote feedback, learning from others, and clarifying and managing goals and expectations. Check-ins are multidirectional, with mentors and students as equal participants. Students request feedback at a check-in, and mentors provide feedback or respond to check-in requests. Assessment questions are provided in the “Just for Mentors” section of the Quest! App to help facilitate check-ins and discussion, and to gauge students’ understanding and skill level.

Skills Checks. Students can check their skills and mentors can provide feedback at any point in time. Skills checks should be tied to evidence, so the ideal time for completing skills checks is after a student completes an artifact or quest. In the near future, students and mentors will be able to complete skills checks and view their growth over time directly in the Quest! App.

Habit Reviews. Students can reflect on the Essential Habits regularly and mentors can provide feedback anytime using the Habit Review. The Habit Review is available in the Quest! App, and more features are in development to enhance the Habit Review and the ways in which students and mentors can view improvement and changes over time.

In the near future, we will also be supporting other forms of assessment, including a daily effort rating for each student, which emphasizes working hard over getting good grades. We also have plans to develop artifact criteria and project rubrics to further support feedback.

Benefits of Authentic Assessment

The benefits of authentic assessment, such as the model we employ with Quest Forward Learning, are extensive.  Students are active participants. They have agency and ownership over their work and, frequently, how they’re assessed. Students find coursework to be more interesting and relevant than tests and quizzes, and thus more motivating. Results of authentic assessment are useful for improving skills and habits, and mentor instruction. It is a reliable and valid approach for outcomes that require higher-order thinking. Beyond developing students’ skills and habits, authentic assessment corresponds directly to better grades, stronger retention of knowledge, and higher graduation rates.

1) Kohn, A. (2011). The case against grades. Educational Leadership. 69(3), 28-33; 2) Grolnick, W. S., & Ryan, R. M. (1987). Autonomy in children’s learning. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 890–898.

2) Anderman, E. M., & Murdock, T. B. (Eds.). (2007). Psychology of Academic Cheating. Burlington, MA: Elsevier Academic Press.; 2) Pulfrey, C., Buch, D., & Butera, F. (2011). Why grades engender performance-avoidance goals. Journal of Educational Psychology, 103(3), 683–700.; 3) Kohn, A. (2011). The case against grades. Educational Leadership. 69(3), 28-33.

3) Darling-Hammond, L. & Adamson, F. (2010). Beyond Basic Skills: The Role of Performance Assessment in Achieving 21st Century Standards of Learning. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education.

4) Darling-Hammond, L. & Adamson, F. (2010). Beyond Basic Skills: The Role of Performance Assessment in Achieving 21st Century Standards of Learning. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education 2

5) Eynon, B., Gambino, L.M., & Török, J. (2014). Completion, Quality, and Change: The Difference E-Portfolios Make. Peer Review. 16(1),

6) Chang, S., Keune, A., Peppler, K., Maltese, A., McKay, C., & Regalia, L. (2015). Open portfolios project: Research brief series. Maker Ed.;

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

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