Research as Authentic Assessment

As a part of my participation in the Learning Beyond Letter Grades MOOC, we have been investigating “authentic assessments” as an alternative to traditional assessments.  I’ve always thought that I had a pretty good handle on describing authentic assessment but I have since learned that my definition was a bit more like that of obscenity: “I’ll know it when I see it.”  This lack of clarity on my part probably hasn’t helped me to support the teachers and administrators that I work with but I have since learned that educators and researchers have had a difficult time agreeing upon a definition. However, in “Defining Authentic Classroom Assessment” the authors distill research and writing on the topic to nine components that the field can agree define an assessment as authentic:

The context of the assessment:
• realistic activity or context
• the task is performance-based.
• the task is cognitively complex.
The role of the student:
• a defense of the answer or product is required.
• the assessment is formative.
• students collaborate with each other or with the teacher.
The scoring :
• the scoring criteria are known or student developed.
• multiple indicators or portfolios are used for scoring.
• the performance expectation is mastery

These criteria expand the definition beyond simply “real life” and provide some nice talking points when looking at what makes an assessment “authentic.”  As a part of the course, I’ve decided to take a look at the topic of research, not just because it was a sample for us to consider within the course but because in New York State – the “research paper” has become a hot topic of discussion.  (Please note – the NYS Board of Regents has not made a final determination of a research paper requirement, the proposal has changed since this initial linked discussion and this post is merely for the purpose of examining research through the lens of authentic assessment, not to debate the merits of this proposal.)

In my social studies classroom and in the district in which I taught, research played a large role.  Our students were required to complete an eighth grade research paper but there were no guidelines about what that looked like.  In fact, each “team” developed their own process.  Some involved the entire team, some focused on one content area and no two teams in our building or our district did it the same.   Each year, my team sat down and determined where the research paper assignment “fit.” One year it might be about the Holocaust because students were reading Anne Frank in English class.  Another it might be about the Pan American Exposition in 1901 which was held in Buffalo since we had a history museum exhibit on it that year.  Or it might be on diseases since they were covering that in science class.  Regardless of the topic, it was teacher driven.  We never asked our students what interested them – what burning questions they had about anything in our curriculum.  They may have been provided choice but it was pretty tightly controlled.

Reflecting on the practice of our team and the information in the course – this quest for a research question is what would be needed for an authentic research project.  Students can learn methods of research or how to cite or even how to write the research paper itself – but it will never be truly authentic until they can uncover the one question that drives them, intrinsically, to find an answer.  To evaluate their findings and then to determine that one, of many, answers is the “correct” one.

This is hard work!  Putting my teacher hat back on, how will I – as a classroom teacher – manage 126 different research topics in one given year which may or may not be in my curriculum?  How do I help students distill their questions into something that is research-able?  And then how do I help them determine the best method to share their findings?

Putting some perspective on this – it really isn’t about me and it certainly isn’t about my content area.  It’s about equipping students with the cognitive skills needed to complete this type of task.  It’s about making the work purposeful, guiding students through the process, providing feedback and expressing a genuine interest in their learning.  In short – it’s about the students.

Our task for this assignment was to redesign an assessment that we had given or experienced to make it “more” authentic.  While not exactly fitting those parameters, I decided to instead review a current resource to determine whether it meets the criteria of authentic.  The New York State Education Department (NYSED) has provided its teachers (and anyone who can find them on the web) with Core Proficiency Units for English Language Arts/Literacy that can be used in Grades 6-12.  Research, specifically “Research to Deepen Understanding,”  is one of those units and I have spent some time with the Grades 9-10 unit on Technology.  When I say “spend some time” I don’t just mean read.  I mean I engaged in the lessons as a learner – conducted research on the topic, used that research to define and refine my question and presented a claim – not in writing a paper, but a claim nonetheless about the power of social media to build professional learning communities.  I have since taken that learning and put it into practice.  That is authentic.

I invite you to explore the materials – to see the purpose that is set out in the Researching to Deepen Understanding units and to explore the research framework that is used with students.  And then look back at the nine criteria I listed where the field agrees about how to define “authentic assessment.”  Every single one of them is there. Every. Single. One.