Innovation Renovation: Authentic Assessments

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All great innovation starts with a singular question: How can I make this better?

I asked myself this very same question when I wanted to revamp my curriculum several years ago. I became disillusioned with the way my students’ educational experiences were becoming “business as usual.” It was the same cycle of assign and assess: I teach a lesson, assign something, collect it, try to meaningfully grade what I assigned, return papers, and start all over again. The students didn’t read the comments I wrote and then the cycle would start all over again. This cycle was killing me and robbing me of all the joy of teaching.

I grew to significantly dislike the grading cycle. What I enjoyed most were the interactions I had with students and the conversations that occurred during class time. I valued giving feedback, and I knew that students made their best learning strides when they regularly engaged in feedback, but I always justified cutting feedback because I had to cut something in order to do more. How was this working for me? It wasn’t.

My students were not doing better by doing more.

One day, I decided that I would just stop the madness. Starting with my 10th grade students, I stopped assigning so many essays in favor of a year long push to produce better writing through shorter written responses. These responses varied between multi-paragraph responses, presentations, and informal conferences. I assessed shorter responses on a more informal basis which involved students receiving ongoing feedback from their peers and me. Pretest to post-test data showed that over 60% of my students made writing growth through this process. After seeing the results, I decided that I didn’t need to assign four essays a year.

The following year, I was given the opportunity to teach a Dual Enrollment Senior English class. When I met with the department chair of the University, I expressed my desire to assign writing tasks to students that are more authentic to what they will see in their everyday lives. My University Department Chair affirmed my desire to assess more authentically by indicating that the text we would be using provides learning scenarios that would do just that.

From that moment forward, I planned with the mindset that students should work more authentically; there should always be opportunity to write about topics of interest in ways that connect to how they will communicate in their daily lives. Students made videos and screencasts that analyzed and explained, generated blog posts that compared ideas and concepts, and delivered presentations (as least once a unit) that forced students to be audience aware. When it came to writing essays, which we still did, students seemed to feel more confident in themselves as writers, which for many students, lead to better writing.

For midterm exams students created a portfolio of their learning. To complete this portfolio, students reviewed their previous essays and set goals for ways to revise the essays to improve the language and organization of each piece. Forcing students to delve into their initial language choices made them consider how well they communicated their ideas to their readers. In other words, students were asking themselves “How can I make this better?”

Shifting from a place where I’m the only audience for students to a place where students determine their audience and how they will most effectively communicate with this audience, produced more cogent essays with better language and stylistic choices. By the end of the year, my students seemed to “get” what makes good writing. In all my years of teaching, I hadn’t seen students work as hard to revise their work or craft their essays to reach an audience. Not only were students asking how to make their essays better, but they were working their craft through their own self-determination, and not simply because their teacher required them to review their writing.

By the end of my first year as a Dual Enrollment Instructor, I made my first push to bring authentic assessments to all my students. I’ve made small steps in each of my classes (this year I have three preps), but my push is to move from baby steps to fully authentic assessments that will improve students’ experiences as writers in my classroom.

Student learning has improved, and opening myself up to authentic assessments has had some other wonderful effects. I am more open and vulnerable with my students. If I want to know how I should approach something new and different, I ask the students whose voices will be represented in the final products, and the students always come up with great ways to represent their own voices. I also spend less time grading and chasing paperwork, which has helped me to enjoy teaching and has enriched my personal life. I spend less personal time chasing papers, which leaves more time for me to recharge and enjoy my family. Although not perfect yet, I am spending less time grading traditional work that isn’t meaningful to students in the long term and has little effect on the products.

When I asked “How can I make this better?” my goal was to maximize student learning while making my professional life more joyful. I hadn’t predicted four years ago that my classroom would become a place where my students take the lead. Now that I've had the experience of guiding a student-led classroom, one that promotes growth above grades and learning above numbers, I work daily to provide opportunities for students to take the lead. Authentic assessments have been my vehicle for growth: students have grown in their ability to communicate with a range of audiences, and I have grown into a teacher who doesn’t need to be the sole audience and source of learning for students. Moreover, my classroom is becoming a place where students can make mistakes and still feel valued.  Students need the comfort and stability of knowing that they can fail at something significant and that someone will always be there to support and encourage them when they do. There is now a rich sense of community in my classroom which has made both my life, and their lives, joyful.