Whatever Happened to Authentic Assessment?

No Child Left Behind drove a stake into its heart. OK, that is a bit dramatic but the standards, tests, and accountability movement that began in the early 1980s, picking up speed in the 1990s, then accelerating to warp drive with the passage of NCLB brushed aside this Progressive instructional reform called “authentic assessment.”* Pick your metaphor but, save for scattered teachers across America who began teaching during the height of “authentic assessment,” few new superintendents, novice principals, and rookie teachers, much less reform-minded parents have ever heard of this Progressive way of assessing student learning.

Where and When Did Authentic Assessment Originate?

In the 1980s following A Nation at Risk report state policymakers rushed to raise curriculum standards and increase school and district accountability. One outcome of these cascading reforms across the country was a sharp increase in students taking required standardized tests. By the late-1980s and early 1990s, Progressives* of the day such as Deborah Meier, Grant Wiggins, Fred Newmann, Linda Darling Hammond, and Ted Sizer sought to make schooling more demanding of students intellectually in tasks, activities, and assessments. Meier, Sizer, and others, for example, created and organized schools with teachers who pushed students to not only think about the content and skills they learned in ways that went well beyond what multiple-choice items on a standardized test would capture but also to demonstrate to others through portfolios and performance tasks–what they learned and apply that learning to the world in which they lived. “Authentic assessments” became an often-mentioned instructional reform. The phrase “performance assessment” was also used interchangeably with “authentic assessment.”

What Problems Did Authentic Assessment Intend To Solve?

Coming in the wake of the increased standardized testing and the narrowing of the curriculum to those tested subjects–reading and math–learning ,especially in poor and minority schools, was reduced to covering what would be on the tests and repetitive tasks. Standardized tests are limited severely in what they measure of student learning, much less performance. Yet policymakers looked to these tests as accurate measures of student outcomes. Finally, students were disengaged and often reduced to passivity. Seeing such a backwash of problems from mandated testing, instructionally-driven reformers saw authentic assessment (no more quote marks for rest of post) as a way to return teaching and learning to its Progressive roots of engaging students through connecting content and skills to real world tasks thereby increasing student participation in learning (see here and here).

What Does Authentic Assessment Look Like in Classrooms?

I could not find a teacher’s lesson or student description of authentic assessment in print. There may be such descriptions but I found none. What I did find after many searches were video clips of schools committed to authentic assessment and a third grade teacher describing what she did with English Language Learners (see here, here, and here).

I was surprised by this dearth of sources describing what actually occurs in classrooms. Designing and applying authentic assessment tasks in a classroom lesson and unit of instruction takes a lot of work by teachers. True, all of the work is front-loaded the first few times but the assessment can be used often afterwards. There are shortcuts, of course, in designing such assessments and locating tasks for students to perform. Nonetheless, much time is involved in finding the right real-world task that captures the student learning outcome that the teacher seeks to assess. I apologize to readers for not having such examples.**

Perhaps I looked in the wrong places or was not persistent enough. If readers know of descriptions of actual classroom lessons that eluded me, please send me the links.

Did Authentic assessment Work?

Here is the bind that champions of authentic assessment find themselves in. If “work” means effectiveness in determining whether students have learned the required content and skills and performed satisfactorily on mandated state tests, to what degree has authentic assessment aided in the outcome.Simply put, here is the bind. Does a classroom teacher or the principal of school committed to authentic assessment through student portfolios look to scores on state standardized tests as evidence of learning? Or does the teacher, school, or district design different measures that would determine the extent that students learned? Or do both matter?

Answers to the questions pose a contradiction since state tests are limited measures of student learning of content and skills that fail to grasp the critical skills gained from assessing discrete tasks authentically. The answer to the other question is “yes” which means an enormous investment in time from teachers and others, a calculation that both teachers and administrators have to make, given the other demands upon teachers during the school day.

When the state of Vermont, for example, adopted portfolios as an authentic assessment rather than standardized tests, RAND researchers evaluated whether portfolios supplied sufficient and accurate data on student performance. They concluded that the data they collected was less in quality than traditional standardized test scores.

What Happened to Authentic Assessment?

Like many Progressive additions to teachers’ repertoires over the decades, the excitement surrounding its introduction in the late-1980s and early 1990s waned. The idea of teachers and schools designing assessment tasks that capture whether students can apply what they have learned, of course, continues to appear in many teachers’ lessons within the nation’s 100,000 schools. Teachers have constantly blended traditional and Progressive ways of teaching and learning over the decades. But the boosterism and hoopla surrounding authentic assessment have disappeared. Standardized tests remain the gold standard in 2020 for assessing student learning.


*I use the word Progressive to describe authentic assessment since it is aimed at the principle of children learning by doing and engaging student’s attention and participation in real world tasks. These were the aims of the early 20th century Pedagogical Progressive and current educators committed to constructivist teaching and learning.

**Please see comments from readers who recommended sources that I have not included. Especially Bob Lenz’s comments and the links he provides to current performance assessments. Thank you, Bob.


Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools, school reform policies

21 responses to “Whatever Happened to Authentic Assessment?

  1. Thanks for another wonderful blog post, Dr. Cuban! I’ve been fortunate as a CTE teacher in Arlington, Virginia to be able to largely escape the high stakes testing trap, and focus on authentic assessment. I came into teaching after the movement, so I didn’t even have effective language for what I was doing. This post was a big help.

  2. mstegeorge

    Darling-Hammond, L., Ancess, J., & Falk, B. (Eds.). (1995). Authentic assessment in action: Studies of schools and students at work. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
    ISBN is 0807734381

    It has some examples of student work and the processes by which the work is put together. But I think the videos are the best for getting the flavor of what goes on in those schools.

    Central Park East High School was the center of Frederick Wiseman’s “High School II”. Wiseman, F. (1994). High School II [DVD]. In. United States: Zipporah Films.
    It’s on Kanopy (the streaming service for my public library).

    I don’t think CPESS is still a performance assessment school, but I believe the Urban Academy still is. https://youtu.be/nA9UxMA7MxI
    I visited the school in 2010. It was an inspirational place.

  3. Check out Envision Schools and Envision Learning Partners. http://www.envisionschools.org and envisionlearning.org. New York State Performance Assessment Consortium. http://www.performanceassessment.org/

    And https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/project/california-performance-assessment-collaborative

    There are more. Performance Assessments are alive and well.

  4. Kali Kurdy

    I think you might find multiple examples at bie.org

  5. EB

    I think part of the problem is that the activities that people think of as authentic assessment often happen outside the classroom. Think of a nine-year old who has learned enough arithmetic, planning skills, and interpersonal skills to operate a lemonade stand. Or a high school student who can write well enough to fill out daily reports at his after-school job. Or a middle-schooler who can adapt a recipe amount on the fly. These are all skills that were learned in school in the traditional way, and demonstrated outside of school in an “authentic” way. In a way, the out-of-school activities are even more authentic than the in-school, teacher-led, officially-noticed assessments through demonstrations or portfolios, but we don’t have access to them for purposes of assessing students’ progress.

    I’m thinking of a nephew who was fixing bicycles at the age of four, and charging for it at the age of seven. He struggled all the way through school, nearly didn’t graduate HS, but now owns a successful small-vehicle repair shop. Shouldn’t someone in the public school system have been able to “see” his abilities through a different form of assessment? But to what end? More schooling was not what he needed; more validation would have been very helpful.

    • larrycuban

      Thank you, Jane, for the point you make about out-of-school performance assessment that occurs unnoticed by schools (and often by families). Nice point.

  6. Grace M. Hoagland

    I do love your blogs! And do pass them on. The experience and insight you distill into these clear sentences is unique, Larry. This one was hard to read because so much of my professional life from the late 60s on was influenced by the assumptions behind “authentic assessment” and the difficulty in straddling that and the usual testing in real-world schools and classrooms. (I also worked for the Coalition of Essential Schools.)
    I think I must challenge your last sentence, however. We treat standardized tests as if they were a gold standard because they have the most currency in the context of American schooling and policy. But they are flawed tests often seriously misused, and the resulting “assessments” do serious damage to both children and the belief systems of their elders. I think they should be regarded as perhaps the ubiquitous, least-worst alternative for real-world policy- makers, but no “gold-standard” as I parse the meaning of that term.

    So glad you are safe and well – and the wonderfully wise guide to the heart of the work you have always been. I miss seeing you!


    • larrycuban

      As always, Gay, I appreciate your taking the time to comment. I know of your work on assessments and deep concerns about standardized tests. Such concerns are surely merited as we scan the educational landscape in 2020. Thanks for the comment and stay well.

    • EB

      “Least worst” is a really valuable concept in a lot of circumstances and environments! When we’re not happy with any of the possible assessment methods that are available, we choose the one that seems broadly applicable, is efficient, and that produces a result that tells teachers in general terms what the students are ready to learn next.

      Narrative assessments by teachers, often based on portfolios and projects, go much farther and deeper, but I have to tell you that I have seen some that are actually very wide of the mark in gauging students’ broader achievement levels and readiness for next-level curriculum. I think both kinds are needed.

  7. Hello Larry,
    While we have never met, I have been a fan of your work over the years. You may know that I worked closely with Grant Wiggins for 20+ years in our collaboration on Understanding by Design. Prior to my work with Grant, I worked at the MD DOE where we implemented statewide performance assessments (PAs) in the 1990s. Since that time, I have remained an advocate for the use of PAs. However, I am acutely aware of the challenges of large-scale performance assessment and have thus worked to encourage the increased use of PAs at the school and district levels.

    Recently, I updated a paper that Grant and I generated in response to a request from Chris Minnich when he was leading the Common Core Standards development through CCSSO and Achieve. The paper outlines a multi-measure model for large scale assessment. Here is a link to the paper in case you are interested: https://secureservercdn.net/
    Feel free to share this paper as you wish.

    Regarding available resources for performance assessments, I have compiled a 23-page list of “hot linked” websites. Indeed, there are many PA wonderful resources available to teachers and schools districts.

    I am happy to schedule a call if you would like to discuss any of these points.

    Best wishes,

    Jay McTighe

    • larrycuban

      Yes, Jay, while we have never met I read Understanding By Design and found it useful in my work. I surely wish I had your paper on performance assessment when I posted “Whatever Happened to Authentic Assessment.” If I do another piece on assessment, I will be in touch about the links you mentioned. Thanks so much for getting in touch and commenting.

  8. FYI – A few more items on assessment: Links to 2 articles and a new book. Unlike my policy paper, these focus on classroom and school level assessments—where I think the greatest impact of P.A. resides.
    Cheers, Jay

    1. Three Key Questions on Measuring Learning

    2. Beware of the Test Prep Trap


  9. Sue Martin

    If you use the typical measures of validity, and reliability to evaluate research methods, you need to consider the research question, hypothesis, selected methods of inquiry, data collection, processes of analysis and conclusions, before coming to any meaningful consideration. We need to know what we are measuring, how and why.
    If we examine observation as a tool of data collection, we must appreciate the criteria for evaluating its usefulness. We need to know what we are measuring, how and why.
    Assessment protocols need to be handled in a similar way. If we take any standardized test, for example, the UK,’s NFER baseline assessments for reception class children, we need to evaluate the protocol in terms of what it measures and how. There are additional questions about the impact of their use.
    Authentic assessments need to be considered/ evaluated by asking similar how and why questions, and probably some further ones that we wouldn’t ask other assessments.
    Inquiry cannot always be a matter of comparing two things, especially if they are chalk and cheese. They need to be evaluated for what they are in their own right.
    Standardized tests may attempt to address the measurement or demonstration of some of the same areas of learning as Authentic assessment, but their purpose and methods differ. As they come at learning in a different context with the idea of capturing the essence or meaning of the learning, as well as the content , and aims to offer a more global/ holistic view of that deep level learning, it uses very different strategies. The application ofconteny is rather more important than the detailed specifics of memory focused (curriculum content) elements of learning. Of course, these intentions overlap between assessment approaches, but, like apples and oranges, using the same technique to determine the effectiveness of authentic assessment in relation to standardized testing, is like suggesting that apples are not good/ useful/ effective, because they don’t have the characteristics, appearance, colour and taste of oranges.
    Authentic assessment methods are most effective tools, if used as part of authentic teaching and learning. We are assuming that the learning voyeurs in a classroom, but authentic learning and its parallel assessment challenges assumptions. Children might be homeschooled/ unschooled. Authentic assessments can guide teaching and learning experiences, and provide both formative an summative processes. They are flexible, teacher driven, allow for individuality within a collaborative group context, and provide an opportunity to show applications of learning – not merely repetition of content- delivered learning. The benefits include the teachers and families embracing a process where their contributions help contextualize a child’s life and learning. Being able to use a choice of techniques to “show what you know” means test stressors are avoided, and best performances are highlighted. Teachers have the best knowledge of children, and as they are skilled observers, child portfolios (of various sorts) may contain narratives that highlight a child’s development and learning. From baby profiles to preschool folios, there can be teacher-designed authentic assessments focusing on early development. As children progress from K to12 they may present their learning aligned to learning outcomes, curricula objectives, or other specifics, using a broad range of demonstrations, exhibitions, papers, art work, objects, portfolios with observations, samples, dance, performance theatre, public service, videos, photos, critiques, testimonials etc. Some opportunities may occur where learning from school might be blended from other sources, such as gardening, scouts, work placements, journaling, traveling and / or through other experiences. We, as society, often see learning in a very limited way.
    I have tried to offer a few ideas about the benefits of authentic assessment. I wrote it in haste, so it doesn’t represent a polished profile, but you might see that judging these two broad assessment approaches using the same lens, is a mistake. That said, authenticity needs to be a complete philosophy, or as much as possible. It is an ethos, way of thinking, democratic process, respectful of all stakeholders, necessitates teaching and assessment alignment, and needs a pedagogy, as well as community commitment.

    I have researched and written on authentic assessment related matters. Let me know if you’d like me to offer anything else.

    Martin S ” Take a Look: Observation and portfolio assessment in early childhood” (2019) 7th edition Pearson Canada

  10. Pingback: O que aconteceu com a avaliação autêntica? | Escribo

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