What are ‘authentic assessments’? How are they different from multiple-choice tests?

Virginia’s elementary and middle school students will have fewer Standards of Learning tests starting next school year, since Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) on Friday signed into law a bill that eliminates five tests.

Three social studies tests, one science test and one writing test will be replaced by what the legislature calls “authentic performance assessments.”

So what are these new alternative tests? What will they look like?

Del. Rob Krupicka (D-Alexandria) one of the patrons of the bill, explains them this way:

Instead of filling in circles on a multiple-choice test, authentic assessments ask students to demonstrate the depth of their understanding through essays or projects.

Often, the assessments are set up so that students are performing tasks that reflect practical challenges in the real world.

The test itself could be an essay, a speech or any number of projects. It could also be a collection of work over time.

One example of an authentic example developed by the Virginia Consortium of Social Studies Specialists and College Educators asks students to pretend they are living in 1910, during industrialization.


You are living on a farm where many families rely on children sharing the work of the farm - including caring for animals and assisting with planting and harvesting crops. Some neighbors are moving to the city where many of the businesses and factories are hiring child laborers. You are not sure whether this move would be good for your family. Having investigated a series of sources related to working conditions, decide whether you should remain on the farm or move to the city to try factory work. Use at least one image or document from the sources you studied to justify your position.

Based on the sources you studied yesterday and the information you learned from your peers, determine your views of which work settings were worse, agricultural or factories/businesses.

To explain your position, you may:

a. Write a structured essay or

b. Give a speech to the class using visual evidence

Arlington Public Schools’ social studies department began developing these types of authentic performance assessments four years ago as a way to measure deeper understanding of the standards, according to social studies supervisor Cathy Hix.

She said one performance assessment might ask a student to pretend he or she is a journalist working in the 19th century and then write a response to a speech by the abolitionist Frederick Douglass that analyzes whether or not Reconstruction was successful.

“We are looking at things that you would have to do in real life to validate that you understand,” Hix said.

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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