Legitimate Authentic Assessments

Note: This is a follow up from a comment made on a post I wrote entitled "What's not being graded?".

I chose my title purposefully because (quite frankly) I am sick and tired of picking up books, reading articles, and attending conferences sessions that have the words "authentic" and "assessment" in them and being sorely disappointed.  Too often activities and processes that get labeled "authentic assessment" are really nothing more than grading with a mask on.  Rubrics?  Still grading, folks.  It's that old saying... wolf in sheep's clothing.

The purpose of this follow up post is to present some ideas about what authentic assessments could look like - and I'm drawing from my experiences in the classroom of a school that rejected numerical grading practices.  I thought I would start by sharing a paragraph from the Middle School's Handbook entitled "Evaluation & Assessment":
We believe that all students and teachers value specific feedback on how they are doing.  We also believe that while other institutions value feedback in the format of numbers and letters, our school chooses to provide more detailed feedback in the form of narrative reports.  In addition to ongoing feedback from your teachers, there are two types of reports: Trimester Reports and End of Year Reports.  As you probably guessed, you get Trimester Reports at the end of the first and second trimesters from all of your classes.  You receive End of Year Reports at the end of the school year.  There is also another cumulative (it is written about your whole, entire year!) End of Year Report that is written by your advisor.  Since all of the reports are about you, your academic progress, and behavior in your classes, you are given the opportunity to read your reports first, prior to your parents.  Another crucial part of the evaluation and assessment process is the time you spend evaluating yourself.  This, in conjunction with goal-setting, are activities that you can expect to complete in you advisee group or with your advisor.

There are a couple of things to note before I get on with it.  You may have noticed that the voice within this paragraph sounds a bit different.  This is because the Handbook was written to the Middle School student - not to their parents or other community members.  Also, it was written in the voice of the staff speaking to the student (thus the use of the plural pronoun "we" throughout).

In practice, these evaluations and assessments varied widely from teacher to teacher.


But before that, I want to reflect a bit on what a definition of an authentic assessment.  Taking assessment first (as maybe the easier of the two words to define), we find that it's root (assess) means to "evaluate or estimate the nature, ability, or quality of".  Interesting.  Taking it back a few generations and looking into the etymology we can find that assess comes from the Latin "assidere" which means to "sit by".  Hm.  Very interesting.

As we look into the meaning and history of authentic, it doesn't get interesting until the fourth and final definition:
(1) "of undisputed origin; genuine", (2) "made or done in the traditional or original way, or in a way that faithfully resembles an original", (3) "based on facts; accurate or reliable", and (4) "(in existentialist philosophy) relating to or denoting an emotionally appropriate, significant, purposive, and responsible mode of human life."

Going back further we find that authentic comes from the Greek word authentikos meaning "principal, genuine."

I choose to embrace the meaning of an authentic assessment as a way to name and describe the journey of a student's growth in such a way that in the sharing the student is left empowered, fulfilled, and whole.  I think it interesting that to assess can be traced back to the meaning "sit by".  It almost implies that assessment cannot be a knee-jerk reaction - it takes thought, patience, and observation.  This is just one take on what "authentic assessment" could mean and I would love to discuss others.

As promised, here are some samples of what these assessments looked like (from my classroom days).

Narrative Feedback

Some teachers chose to compose their evaluations in a completely narrative format.  The biggest difference within this category was who the report was written to.  Some choose to write to the student, some to the parents, and still others wrote to both student and parent.  Within the narrative (using "narrative" generally to mean "written") feedback would include a variety of themes, ideas, and thoughts recording the staff member's reflections of the child's journey up until that point.

When I first began teaching, this is the route I took.  Here's a few samples from some of my evaluations:

From a First Trimester Evaluation of a Third Year (seventh grade) student in a class called Jacobs Experience:

Chapter 2 Test: ACE!

Chapter 4 Test: Work that he did was awesome, easily finished ones he left blank…

Chapter 7 Test: Coming soon… (Was absent)

Teacher Comments

I am so glad to have the opportunity to teach #### again this year in Jacobs!  I just adore this child, and I’m pretty sure he knows this.  I’m most impressed by how #### carries himself in class and how he is willing to humor my quirky teaching style when it comes to Jacobs.  I believe that #### truly wants to understand and strives to get it right and get it in his brain in a way that makes sense.  Often this takes a little bit longer, but it works for him.  Come test time, though, I wish he’d have more confidence in himself and his learning.  He’s got it somewhere in his head, now its just getting it “out there.”  I’m looking forward to two more trimesters with this remarkable young man, and many more successes as the year unfolds.

From a Second Year (sixth grader) in Pre-Algebra, Second Trimester:
Teacher Comments

#### has had a good second trimester in Pre-Algebra.  #### is always in class on time and ready to go when class begins.  What I want to acknowledge him for as well is his commitment to doing the best that he can.  When #### is in class, he is fully engaged in whatever activity we are working on and I truly believe that he is trying his best.  As can be seen above with his tests, he struggles with showing what he knows.  The tests also show places where #### still needs more help.  I believe ####'s reflection on his skills (see his skills assessment below) to be accurate—he knows the things he needs to keep working on.  He knows that there are many skills that he has still yet to master or, in our language, he hasn’t “Got it” yet.  What I am most proud of is the way that #### sticks to it.  He has not shied away from a challenge.  He knows that some parts of Pre-Algebra don’t come as easily to him and he is still there, doing the best he can do.  This is such a wonderful attitude, ####.  I’ll be looking to helping him move those marks from his skills assessment over closer to “Got it” in the third trimester.  I also think that the return to Pre-Algebra units outside of the Jacobs text in the coming weeks will be helpful for him.  Keep it up, ####!  You’re the man!

And finally, another Second Year (sixth grader) in Pre-Algebra, Third/End-of-Year Evaluation:
#### had an absolutely stellar year in Pre-Algebra.  She is a hard working, skilled math student.  She consistently sets high expectations for her success, often meets, and most often exceeds these expectations.  #### finds math fun, which makes class a delight and problems an interesting challenge or game for her.  Her scores on tests throughout the year in addition to her work on the final exam reflect mastery of the material we covered this year.  #### is also quite adept at navigating the bridge between the concrete and the abstract.  When asked to reflect on how she has grown this year as a math student on her end of year Self-Assessment #### wrote, “I can understand concepts that I couldn’t have been able to at the beginning of the year.  Also, I can do math problems that at the beginning of the year would have looked like alien writing.”  That is one of my favorite moments—when students are able to look back and see just how “simple” the math at the beginning of the year is and how hard they have been working all year.  Over the summer I’d like #### to take a second (or third!) look at reducing and dividing fractions and fraction/decimal/percent conversions, just for a tune-up.  She is well prepared for the rigors of Jacobs next year.  Thanks for a fabulous year, ####!

While I still maintained a narrative component to my future evaluations, I developed what I call "spectrum rubrics" to supplement the report beginning in my second year.

Spectrum Rubrics

Many teachers shifted to using Spectrum Rubrics as a way of chronicling some of the more common themes in their reports (behavior, attitude, homework completion).  One colleague in the social studies used rubrics to evaluate his students' projects (they completed at least six a year).  Still others (like myself) would have the student evaluate themselves within the rubric and then follow up with their own evaluation.  Since a great deal of my content as a math teacher was surrounding specific skill development I shifted to using a spectrum rubric.

Here was my reasoning.  Imagine a spectrum with total, utter, magnificent genius/expert on one end and totally clueless, no idea what's going on with a particular subject on the other.  (Note: I'm not talking about being "dumb" or "stupid" - simply lacking knowledge.)  At any given time in our lives our relative ability to accomplish/demonstrate skill level goes up and down, there are good days and bad days.  The example that I used to show my students was from my days as a Calculus student.

I LOVED Calculus.  And I loved being a student of Calculus.  If I had been asked to evaluate myself along a spectrum of knowing at the end of Calculus, I would have put myself much closer to the greater understanding side of the spectrum.  But today, right at a decade since my last Calculus course, I would be nowhere near where I once was!  I explained to students that this would be true for them as well - they would start off not understanding and hopefully, gradually, move closer and closer to greater, more in depth understanding.  The students first filled out these rubrics at the end of the first trimester, revised at the end of the second trimester, and finalized by the end of the year.

I played around with the titles of my categories, tweaking wording here and there.  I tried "Did not meet expectations... Exceeded expectations" once - but that didn't feel right.  I eventually settled on something that my kids would have said was very "Matthew-speak": "Don't Got It... Almost Got It... GOT IT!"  By using these spectrum rubrics (without any numbers or numerical evaluation) in addition to narrative feedback, I was able to clearly share with students and with parents how their journey was coming along.

I should share that there were some staff members who chose to use numerical rubrics (1 = Not acceptable, 2 = Unsatisfactory, 3 = Met Expectations, 4 = Exceeded Expectations), but this didn't work for me and my classes.

Here's a PDF of a sample rubric

Strengths & Weaknesses

One staff member in particular chose to include his feedback on the students' assignments within his reports including a generous listing of their strengths and weaknesses.  This allowed me as a student's advisor to see clearly what was working and what was not working in this staff member's class.  I have to admit that I ended up borrowing this idea for some of my narrative feedback. :)

Satisfactory / Unsatisfactory

A final example - think of pass/fail.  More often than not staff members who chose this report method often chose alternatives to the "traditional" evaluation (pictures of students engaged in work, poetry written by the students, attaching a multimedia project).  In these courses there truly was more of a focus on the process of engaging with the subject matter than there being a giant, final assessment/evaluation at the end of the course.  (Think of courses like: Quilting, Dance, Journal Writing, Capture the Flag... how in the world can these REALLY be graded?  "Oh, you get an 80 for that final dance move there."  Huh?!?)


I hope that these examples have been helpful and they are truly just the ones that jumped out of my head when I sat down to write this.  I can share more in the future as needed, though. :)  Continue the conversation - and keep me in the loop if you do.  Talking about kids and anti-grading and feedback is one of my passions.


  1. I've tried commenting, but it says "provide name and email", even though I am already logged in. Grr!

    Anyway, I'll try again.

    In my current school setting, we do provide reports periodically, similar to the narratives described above. We do them for all of our students at the end of each quarter, and we also do them several other times throughout the year for students who are struggling. However, we still assign traditional grades.

    What would happen when these students transitioned to high school? Did the high school these students attended (if they all went to the same one) follow the same grading methodology? If not, how would one provide "proof" that the students had mastered the skills they needed to move on to the next level? Also, what if a student moved and had to switch schools? What would their transcript look like?

    I realize you are basing this on a middle school setting, but I am curious to know what this would look like on a high school level, or if you know of anywhere this has been done. Colleges, for example, want to see transcripts and will look at numbers and letters (which translate to GPA). I'm curious as to how this would mesh.

    Thanks again for providing more detail! It's really interesting.

  2. I'm so sorry that Wordpress was keeping you from posting! Again, great questions.

    Something I neglected to mention was my prior school was Pre-K thru High School and all units were non-graded. So, the quick answer to your question about proof is that we handed over the students final reports to their Upper School teachers and had lots and lots and lots of conversations with the Upper School staff to ensure that their transition went smoothly.

    As to leaving the school and moving on to another graded school, again all of the narrative reports were provided for the counselors and teachers at the new school. In general though I never heard of problems moving from our school to a graded school.

    As for college, many higher ed institutions do have what I call "back doors" or alternative application procedures. At CFS there is an Upper School counselor whose sole job is to help in the college transition. Students (depending on their schools of choice) sometimes take the SAT or ACT - but from my understanding most of their application is based on essays and narratives. I heard rumors once about there being an attempt to quantify a students' learning because their university of choice wouldn't budge. And most people think that then the kids who aren't graded have trouble getting into "good" schools. Check out their matriculation list, however.

    Hope this helps! :)


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