Learning in Mind

Rethinking the Purpose of Education

What is Authentic Assessment?

The root of the word assessment is from the Latin assidere,
which means "to sit beside."


hen discussing the meaning of learning, we looked at how people go about assessing (evaluating or estimating) the ability of a plumber, electrician, or carpenter. As with learning, the abilities that make a tradesperson effective are largely intangible, but that doesn't stop people from making reasoned judgments about who they want to hire for a particular job. They do it by checking references, getting recommendations from friends, or going to a website to see what other people have to say.

Those references and recommendations, in turn, are based on someone's judgment of the worker's performance…not the number of tools s/he has in a toolbox. The observer makes a subjective evaluation of complex intangibles, and that qualitative evaluation takes into account many different factors that combine to signify a level of competence. Assuming that a person trusts the judgment of the person writing the reference or making the recommendation, their word is sufficient evidence on which to make a decision.

Not so in education. Parents and the public have been led to believe that only numbers can give an accurate and "objective" assessment of a student's ability—even though that ability is not only intangible, but is a complex interaction of dozens of other intangibles, none of which can be measured!

From the time a child is born, most parents engage in ongoing and informal assessments of their child's learning. They do it through observation of the day-to-day behavior of the child. Parents can see how their children are changing—mentally, physically, socially, emotionally, etc. While they may compare behaviors over time, they don't measure them. And while they may not think in terms of learning, they are comfortable that this ongoing informal assessment is an acceptable and largely reliable judgment of a child's growth.

Once children are in school—even a learner-centered school—parents lose a large portion of that ability because of the time they are apart from their children. Other than what they might observe at home, they must now rely on the teacher/mentor/facilitator to keep them informed of the child's progress.

In public schools, other than "parent nights, parent-teacher conferences, and report cards, many schools provide only grades and brief comments about how the child is doing in school. Parents may also see graded papers, but again, the numbers have no information on the child's innate abilities or what s/he has actually learned.

By contrast, in many learner-centered schools, mixed-age students form a "family" unit (generally no more than 12 students) with a single advisor…and that connection often lasts for several years. The adult gets to know each learner and the parents very well and has the time and ability to document important changes in the learner's life.

Once again, it comes down to trust. Although parents can still observe growth or changes in their children, they must leave the details of "evaluation" to others. To some extent this is an advantage because teachers/mentors/facilitators see many children. They become aware of the range of developmental expectations, as well as the myriad ways in which individual children may demonstrate various types of learning.

So how can the intangibles of learning be assessed. Here are just a few of ways in which learner-centered schools describe their assessment policies.

Authentic Assessment Examples

Types of Authentic Assessment

The above descriptions demonstrate how authentic assessment works in general. The actual types of evaluation that go on at any given moment may include:

Notice that each of these activities draws on and provides access to different intelligences. Questions that should underlie any type of assessment/evaluation/estimation of learning include:

In other words, assessment focuses solely on the individual learner and what s/he has accomplished or will accomplish. It has nothing to do with the meaningless and discriminatory task of comparing one learner to another.



n truth, the ways in which learning can be assessed are limited only by one's imagination.

Pouring Water

One of the most convincing examples of "qualitative" assessment I encountered in my visits to learner-centered schools was the time I spent watching a 3-year-old repeat the same motion over and over. He filled the plastic bottle with water and poured it into the toy water wheel. As the water flowed through the toy, it ran down the red tray and turned the wheel. There was no adult suggesting what he might do, or what he might learn. He didn't say anything, nor did I ask anything. He was completely absorbed in what he was doing and the noise of a dozen or more other 3-year-olds didn't distract him in the slightest.

For a full 20 minutes, he filled, poured, and watched…filled, poured, and watched. He repeated the same action several dozen times. And then suddenly, he put his hand on the top end of the red tray, pushed it down, and then poured. This time, the wheel turned the other way! He tried it once more to verify his hypothesis and then dropped the bottle and took off to find his next learning opportunity. There wasn't a doubt in my mind that he had learned exactly what he set out to learn…in his own way and at his own rate. This is authentic learning…and authentic qualitative assessment.

Some may still question how this form of assessment fulfills the entry requirements of colleges and universities—or even job applications. Here's an example. At Lehman Alternative High School in Ithaca, NY, progress in many, although still not all, high school classes is measured in a program called "Graduation by Exhibition." In it, students create portfolios to demonstrate their mastery of core subjects, rather than taking a single test at the end of their studies. At the end of their senior year, each student also is responsible for completing a "senior project" that requires the student to demonstrate his or her learning, usually in a way that connects back to the community. Past projects have included dance performances, written plays, murals, or scientific projects.

And from Brooklyn Free School: To graduate from Brooklyn Free School, a student must compile a transcript of the classes and activities in which they participated during their years of attendance, write an essay arguing why they are ready to graduate and move on to the next stage of their lives, and defend their graduation in a voluntary meeting with members of the school community—staff, students, parents, experts, and community volunteers.

On a more practical note, you might ask how these students adapt to life in a university and how they fare in the admissions process. All of the learner-centered schools I've reviewed have a process that helps interested students with the admission process and gives them practice in taking any "bubble tests" that they may be asked to take. Many universities/colleges have dropped the SAT as a way to judge potential candidates and are focusing much more on the transcripts, accomplishments, and essays students provide. And graduates of learner-centered schools can provide those in spades! Here are just a few paragraphs from an essay written by a 13 year old graduate of Albany Free School.

Reflections on a Free School Education

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Loud shrieks emanated through the worn walls of the curious red brick building on Elm Street in Albany, New York's South End neighborhood. The little girl gazed up at the crooked sign on the fire escape, swaying in the wind. "The Free School" the sign stated proudly, towering above her head. She struggled to pull open the doors. The stairs made clicking sounds as she tripped over herself, stuffed animal in tow. When she reached the top of the stairs she cautiously shuffled through the door. The girl was welcomed by her new classmates who were busy chasing each other with arms flailing above their heads like flags, and the smell of crayons and dirt permeating the room. She hugged her stuffed dog close to her chest, eyes wide with astonishment. There was a light tap on her shoulder. When she turned around, she was greeted by a lady with a big smile. "What's your name?" the woman asked kindly. The girl looked down at her light-up shoes and mumbled, "Harmony." She didn't like to talk to people much. When the lady left, she sat in the corner and buried her head in a book. She stayed in the corner most of that first day and spoke sparingly.

But that was nine years ago...

I've spent the past years in an educational environment with no grades, homework, or testing. Now I'm thirteen, and it's my last year at The Free School. Back then I would shield myself from any social interaction by encasing myself in a fortress of books. Now I find myself approaching, and addressing groups of strangers without a second thought. The Free School has let me do things at my own speed. During my time here, I've been able to wait until I was comfortable enough to participate, and had the safe environment to be able to step out of my comfort zone…

People are always skeptical about what happens after students leave The Free School and go on to high school. They wonder how a school that gives no grades, no state tests, and no homework can teach a student what they need to learn to be prepared for high school. I'll admit that at times I questioned that too and worried about the future and what would happen after The Free School. Well that future is now and next year I'll be going off to high school.

After exploring the local public school options, I made the decision to apply to several private high schools in the Northeast. The process was long, hard, and very stressful. I had to take the upper level SSAT's which was the first timed and graded test I'd ever taken. The upper level SSAT's are entrance exams taken by students in 8th through 11th grade. I took the test twice, and, the second time I took it I was scored overall on the 88th percentile. I ended up applying to four schools, three as a boarding student and one as a day student. With four applications plus other school things, I ended up having to send in some late supplementary materials after I submitted my application. I would hear from the schools soon. I started worrying if I had given the right answers and sent in the right things. Eventually I got the admissions decisions notifications. I got into every school I had applied to! Most importantly, three of the schools wanted me to attend so badly that they offered me very generous financial aid packages. I guess I had nothing to worry about after all. The Free School had prepared me just fine.

Isn't reading that piece a better indicator of this girl's ability to write effectively than a bubble test? Doesn't it tell you all you need to know about whether this girl can meet the following Common Core Standards for 8th grade language arts: "introduce a topic clearly; organize ideas, concepts, and information; develop the topic with relevant, well-chosen facts, definitions, concrete details, and other information and examples; use appropriate and varied transitions to create cohesion and clarify the realtionships among ideas and concepts; use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to inform about or explain a topic; and provide a concluding statement that follows from and supports the information and explanation presented"?

If we don't have data, what about accountability? How can we assess whether or not a school is doing its job…whether students are actually learning? The most significant performance assessment is what happens when these students leave school…how they function in the world. If these schools weren't doing their job, would those who can afford the tuition send their children there? If these schools weren't doing their job, would they have waiting lists and have to hold lotteries for admission? If these schools weren't doing the job of creating eager life-long learners, would students race through the door at 7:30 every morning, and linger when the day ends at 4 as they do at Renaissance School of Arts and Sciences?

All of the studies, all of the books and articles, and all of the research demonstrating that government policies of one-size-fits-all standards and assessments have no basis in fact fall on the deaf (or closed) ears of federal, state, and local educational policy makers. It appears that the only hope schools have to become places where the needs of human beings become the primary consideration is for parents and the public to reclaim their children's lives and futures. The Opt Out movement has shown what parents can accomplish, but it must expand to opting out of the whole assembly line knowledge factories that public schools have become.

Since the days of Frederick Taylor and Edward Thorndike, parents have been sold a bill of goods about the kind of education their children need. And because schools have been so successful in creating an obedient and dependent populace who are content to have "someone else" make their decisions, re-educating the public will not be easy.

"I freed a thousand slaves—I could have freed a thousand more…if only they had known they were slaves!
~Harriet Tubman

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