Assessment Opinion

High Standards and Authentic Instruction and Assessment: A Look Back #TBT

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — October 02, 2014 5 min read
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Schools continue to struggle to make sense of student engagement and its relationship to student achievement. Some students come to class ready to learn and remain engaged no matter the lesson. This has always been the case. But far more students become increasingly disengaged with their learning. The response is to intervene with more teaching and learning time, counseling, removing privileges like clubs or sports, and/or the “call home” to engage parents in the solution. With the number of articles and conversations that take place regarding these disengaged students it may be safe to assume these interventions are not working.

Now coupled with the issue of “raising standards” the challenge for educators is greater. We couldn’t get students engaged before, how will we be able to with this higher bar set? Our current national standards have well documented strengths and weaknesses. However, the charge to implement them remains. With that understanding, we thought about the decades old work done regarding standards and authentic learning and assessments by Grant Wiggins, President of Authentic Education, who remains a leader in this field. In an EdWeek Commentary he shared,

With all the current talk of the need for “raising standards” in education and establishing “national standards,” we must exercise a bit of caution--not only because no one thinks their standards are too low, but because too many people mean nothing more than that test scores should be raised. (Grant Wiggins, 1990!)

In that commentary, Wiggins argued that even when high standards result in students being given “high-quality assignments” it does not guarantee that the work students produce will be of high quality.

Authentic Instruction
Authentic instruction as the vehicle for deeper learning and engaging students in deeper learning opportunities is not a new concept. In 1993, Educational Leadership published an article entitled The Five Standards of Authentic Instruction. In it, authors Fred M. Newmann and Gary G. Wehlage list higher order thinking, depth of knowledge, connectedness to the world beyond the classroom, substantive conversation, and social support for student achievement as the guideposts for developing authentic instruction. All five of these standards are critical in the problem based STEM environments of this century. But, which of these can be measured by a multiple-choice test?

The Multiple-Choice Problem
What are school leaders and teachers to do when the alignment to the standards are measured by multiple-choice tests? Classroom assessments begin to mirror those standardized tests that states use to measure implementation of those standards. And in that effort, intended to help students prepare for the high stakes measures that await them, a lot is lost. From Grant Wiggins’ 1990 Commentary:

No multiple-choice item can show whether a student’s answers derived from thoughtful understanding and good habits, dumb luck, or native cleverness hiding bad habits; no “norming” process can substitute for examining the student’s habits directly.

According to Wiggins’ thinking then, the multiple choice tests will not measure the work being done in the classrooms if what is being done in the classrooms is a true reflection of what the standards intend. Does this provide an opening?

Understanding Authenticity
Authentic learning opportunities and authentic assessments have been on the educational landscape for years. Yet there remains a need for shared understanding of what that means. The range of understanding still extends from re-writing a math problem to include names of students and including references that are familiar to students, to working in partnership with professionals working in their fields to design and implement lessons that requires students, work with other students and those professionals, to solve real-world problems. That is one big stretch.

The Call for Action
The practice in which teachers lecture, students listen, and teachers measure, are melting away, albeit slowly. But the replacement with authentic learning and assessing still remains a slow process. And now, with the high stakes multiple-choice measure, it is more difficult to take up the challenge. Teaching and assessing in ways that will truly enrich and raise the standards of the learning experiences of the students are being pushed up against concerns about results on those multi-choice tests. But no matter the time, before the Common Core or after, changing the way teaching and learning takes place is what is necessary. Authentic learning and assessment is more encouraged now than ever before. Had we locked on to it at any point during the intervening years, we would have been better prepared to provide 21st century authentic, engaging, learning environments, measured by authentic assessments. College and career ready means the students must be ready for the environments they will be entering. Can we demonstrate success with a college and career readiness mission through a series of multiple choice tests only?

The courage required of school leaders lies in their understanding and willingness to bring other leaders, board members, teachers, parents, and community members to agreement that the way teaching and learning takes place is of more value than preparation for the standardized tests. There is agreement in the field that some of the CCSS are a good lift, and others simply don’t fit.

We have always had standardized multiple-choice tests as measures and they have never really felt like they reflect or measure all the work that takes place in classrooms. But now, finally, shouldn’t focusing on the work of educators like Wiggins, Newmann and Wehlage be a useful place to invest time and energy? It allows us to hold what we know to be good for children and learning as the focus of the work, rather than slipping slowly backwards toward test prep in the name of wanting good scores. Whatever stopped this from happening before must be discarded from our culture. If responding to the call for performance on standardized tests interferes with good teaching and learning, if it runs counter to what is needed in our 21st century classrooms, a stand must be taken. And it won’t be until it is tried that we will know if changing our classrooms will result in higher test results anyway. It’s worth a try, isn’t it?

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.