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What is Authentic Assessment and How is it Used in the Early Years - Bright Wheel Learning


Last updated on June 26, 2023


Many preschool educators continue to assess children using only traditional assessment methods, most of which entail staged tasks on a table or the floor, or in separate sessions away from the regular classroom. These assessment approaches might give you an idea of how well a child is learning but not a holistic and accurate picture of the learning as it happens. A more comprehensive assessment method like authentic assessment, will allow you to evaluate a child’s learning in the natural experience of the day (not on demand), giving you a more descriptive and realistic appraisal of their development. Read on to learn why authentic assessment is important and how to use it in your classroom. What is authentic assessment? Authentic assessment is an assessment approach that involves a teacher observing and documenting a child’s skills, knowledge, and behavior during their everyday activities and routines. Jon Mueller, an American professor of Psychology, defines authentic assessment as “a form of assessment in which students are asked to perform real-world tasks that demonstrate meaningful application of essential knowledge and skills.” An integrative assessment method, authentic assessment takes place over time. It is a non-intrusive approach, meaning assessment takes place during normal activities as they happen in a familiar environment with familiar people. It also involves collecting information from the child’s family and other caregivers about their activities and routines. After the teacher observes the child, collects data, and organizes a portfolio, they share their findings and ideas with school administrators and the child’s family. At that time, they can discuss necessary adjustments to improve learning outcomes and maximize the child’s potential. Traditional assessments are typically teacher-structured, meaning the child’s understanding of a concept is limited to what the teacher decides to test or assess. It involves teachers setting up a contrived one-and-done task, for example, asking a question and giving the child a list of answers they can choose from, or setting manipulatives on a desk and asking the child to match corresponding objects. On the other hand, with authentic assessment, a child performs a task with a real-life application. For example, you can assess a child’s fine motor skills over time by observing their activity in a sensory bin—how they scoop, stir, dig, and move objects around with tongs. While traditional assessment has its place in some early childhood programs, it’s limited in scope and can be complemented by authentic assessment. For example, selecting the correct answer from a set of options might be a lucky guess and might not demonstrate a child’s understanding of that concept. However, with authentic assessment, you can observe the child’s natural response and evaluate the child’s cognitive process behind it. Why authentic assessment is important Authentic assessment gives educators a holistic overview of a child’s abilities. Since it happens in their natural environment, the child is not under any pressure to perform. Because the assessment takes place over time, a more accurate picture of the child’s abilities takes place. Since families are involved in authentic assessment, educators are able to build a relationship with them, which is essential to a child’s overall development. It also allows parents and guardians to create relevant learning opportunities at home for their child. Collecting data from various sources, including parents and other caregivers, gives educators accurate information about the child’s routines and activities. It also reveals learning gaps, which inform the instruction (individual and general) needed to improve learning outcomes. Authentic assessment outcomes will include an understanding of the following:

  • Cognitive processes by asking questions like “Why do you think the rock sank?” or “What do you think will happen when we mix yellow and red paint?”

  • Social and communication skills by observing real-life behavior and interactions with peers and teachers

  • Routines and activities that provide the best learning opportunities

  • Physical development through activities like walking heel-to-toe in a straight line or throwing and catching in free play

  • Content knowledge through activities like object identification with pictures

  • Creative expression through activities like drawing pictures of their pets or families, painting, and making crafts

Source Authentic assessment examples Educators can conduct authentic assessment in various ways, including the following: Example 1: Michael’s teacher wants to assess his understanding of the friendship theme and how he applies it in his regular routine. The teacher can observe if he’s willing to wait his turn or share materials during activities like shared art projects, scavenger hunts, and building activities at the block center. Example 2: Nolan’s teacher wants to assess his expressive language skills. The teacher can use a dramatic play activity. For instance, in a hospital dramatic play center, Nolan can pretend to be the doctor talking to and examining a patient. The teacher can observe how well he uses words, answers questions, and makes eye contact. Example 3: Cindy’s teacher wants to assess her gross motor skills. The teacher can observe Cindy’s steadiness during activities that require whole-body movement, hand-eye coordination, and balance—for example, jumping on a trampoline, swinging on a swing set, or using rope ladders on the playground. How to use authentic assessment in the classroom The authentic assessment process includes four main steps: observing, documenting, recording/rating, and reflecting. Let’s discuss them in detail below. Observing Educators start with objectively observing each child in their natural classroom environment. Observing 15 children for various skills and developmental milestones sounds overwhelming and almost impossible. That’s why focusing on one child, skill, and experience at a time is essential. For example, if you choose to focus on social relationships skills, your job is to observe the child in group play and other activities where they take turns or share. Plan projects or activities that will encourage the skill you want to assess. Documenting Documentation can be in the form of taking notes, photos or videos. Remember to focus on one child demonstrating their ability to use a specific skill during various activities. Documentation is essential for accountability and for making the child’s learning visible to parents and caregivers. Recording/rating Record your observations by writing factual anecdotal notes about what the child said or did. You can use a notepad, sticky notes, or assessment forms. The notes should be specific, concise, objective, and strength-focused. Record the level the child demonstrated and write notes about any possible influences that may have impacted the child’s actions or behavior during your observation, like their health, environment, interests, and people. Reflecting Finally, reflect on your documentation and adapt your teaching to each child’s level and interests. With authentic assessment, you’ll want to set up your classroom to prompt whatever skill you want to assess. However, assessing every skill for each child is tedious without the right tools. Brightwheel's Experience Curriculum helps with managing the assessment planning process with lesson plans, guides, and planning charts that allow you to track ongoing growth and development throughout the year. The bottom line While many educators are familiar with more traditional assessment methods, learning and using authentic assessment can help bring about better outcomes for teachers, children, and their families. Recording a child’s learning as it happens might seem time-consuming, but collecting accurate information to effectively inform a child’s learning makes it worthwhile.

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