Bennett Day School News

The Power of Authentic Assessment in PreK-12 Education

In traditional education, assessment often involves standardized tests or grades. At Bennett, we believe in a more holistic and individualized approach to assessing student progress.

Written by: Lisa Kennedy, Director of Lower School, and Martin Moran, Lead Designer of Middle and Upper School
Posted: January 4, 2024

This content was originally shared with Bennett Day School parents/guardians on November 30, 2023.

What is Authentic Assessment?

Authentic assessment is a way of evaluating a student's abilities and skills in real-life situations. It goes beyond traditional tests and grades, focusing on the child's understanding, creativity, and critical thinking abilities. A single test score, being a mere snapshot, is a momentary reflection of a child's understanding and performance on a particular day and time. It doesn't comprehensively represent the full spectrum of their capabilities, as various factors like mood, health, and environmental conditions can influence test performance. It's essential to consider a broader range of assessments.

In all of our PreK-12 classrooms, teachers use a variety of methods to assess student progress, including classroom projects, presentations, collaborative activities, discussions, project work, teacher observations, and public demonstrations. These assessments allow us to understand a child's unique talents, challenges, and learning styles.

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At the end of Trimester 1, Middle and Upper School students engaged in one of the most essential events of their project-based learning experience at Bennett: The Demonstration. We refer to this as “Demo Day” in Middle School and “Demo Night” in Upper School. These demonstrations are the essence of what we talk about when we discuss “authentic assessment,” that is, an assessment that contains immediate and “authentic” consequences. Unlike a multiple choice assessment, demonstrations ask students to engage in the type of work that has immediate outcomes and is in a public context.  

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Authentic assessment plays a crucial role in education as it delves into the application of knowledge and skills. Unlike traditional assessments that often focus on rote memorization and regurgitation of information, authentic assessment evaluates students' abilities to apply what they have learned to real-life situations.

One of the key benefits of authentic assessment is its ability to engage students in meaningful and relevant learning experiences. By presenting students with authentic tasks and challenges, they are motivated to explore and understand concepts in a deeper and more meaningful way. This approach fosters critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity, essential skills for success in higher education and the workforce.

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Progressive Education: A Personalized Approach

In progressive education, we value the development of the whole child - academically, socially, and emotionally. We recognize that each child is unique, with their own interests, passions, and ways of learning. We observe student interactions, listen to their questions, and engage in meaningful conversations to understand their thoughts and ideas.

We avoid the “banking system” of education that abounds in schools, in which teachers are considered the sole holders of knowledge and their students, as empty vessels, passively receive, memorize, and repeat knowledge that their teachers give them. This of course informs assessments, in which students are asked to regurgitate the information they have been taught, and if they don’t know it, they are seen as not ready or behind.

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At Bennett, we know that if we just focus on feeding children content for our teaching and assessments, we are missing so much of what our young students have to offer. We do not see them from a deficit view, rather we work to open our eyes to the incredible power, wealth of knowledge, and range of skills that they already have. We do not limit them to what we think is important, but instead, create an environment in which they can be limitless. Our image of a child is not as an empty vessel, rather they are seen as capable and competent.

Authentic Assessment Allows for Differentiation

At our Middle School Demo Day, attendees saw presentations on a wide variety of topics, from psychology to mealworms. In Upper School, there were presentations on a wide variety of topics presented through numerous media, including museum exhibits and straight-ahead three-fold posters. Regardless of the topic, though, it was the authenticity of the assessment that is designed to push students to engage more deeply in their study. It also allows for students, across a class or a grade, to be challenged at a level commensurate with their development.

In education, we refer to this as differentiation. Regardless of a student’s developmental growth, teachers can provide students with challenges that push them past their comfort zone and into a zone of proximal development. This can be seen in the presentations; regardless of the student, the point of authentic assessment is to provide real stakes so that students can work just out of their comfort zone to prepare.

November 9, 2023 5th_6th Grade Demo Day-26

Demonstrations Develop Critical Thinking & Learning Endurance

Public presentations play a significant role in developing critical thinking skills. When preparing for a presentation, students need to organize their thoughts, analyze information, and synthesize ideas coherently. They must anticipate questions and challenges, encouraging them to think critically about their topic. Presenting in front of an audience further hones their ability to defend their ideas, evaluate different perspectives, and make persuasive arguments, fostering intellectual growth and enhancing their capacity to think critically in various situations.

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Finally, demonstrations also develop student motivation and learning endurance. The key to developing motivation and academic endurance is by providing students with tasks that are challenging and relevant. Asking students to engage in challenging and sometimes stressful work is important IF students are invested in the outcome of that work and can see the outcomes and benefits of that work within a short time period. That type of emotional feedback is important in building endurance–seeing the benefits of one’s work is always a motivator to continue to improve, and the further removed a person is from the benefit of their work, the more likely they are to simply succumb to the stress and boredom that hard work sometimes elicits.

Much like seeing a faster mile time makes runners want to go out and train more, performing at Demo Day/Night and getting treated as a thoughtful, smart, and contributing learner by adults helps students want to continue to learn, even when some days get a little boring or challenging. 

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Most importantly, it is important to think of Demo Day/Night as a “final exam” rather than a “show and tell” or a “science fair.” In order for this to feel like an authentic experience, we want to make sure there are stakes for students. Students are asked to demonstrate their knowledge, and we let them know that our expectations are high for them. When we debrief with them afterwards, we will be honest about their work, both in terms of strengths and challenges.

Why Authentic Assessment Matters

Authentic assessment is essential because it gives us a deep insight into a student's progress and allows us to tailor instructional methods to their needs. By understanding their strengths and areas for growth, we can provide a more personalized and effective learning experience. It also helps us celebrate their achievements and guide them in areas where they may need additional support.

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