What to Look for in Student Work: Some Standards for ‘Authenticity’

What intellectual standards should serve as a foundation for the highest quality teaching and learning? Fred Newmann, who directs the Center on Organization and Restructuring Schools at the University of Wisconsin, has come up with a set of criteria for what he calls “authentic instruction and assessment,” which can serve as a resource for reflection by teachers examining student work.

Though Newmann provides rubrics for applying his standards in the fields of mathematics and social studies, he intends them not as a mechanical scoring system (for students, teachers, or schools) but as a stimulus for discussion of larger standards and continuous school improvement. He urges groups of reflective teachers to try them out, debate them, perhaps modify them, and finally decide whether their school should incorporate them into its vision and seriously implement them for all students and teachers.

This complex process, he believes, cannot be done individually; it depends on teachers working in collegial small groups over time to discuss and develop their ideas. In Chicago, eleven Essential schools who are part of the Annenberg Challenge site there have agreed to use Newmann’s standards as benchmarks for their collaborative looks at student work both within schools and as part of their “critical friendships” across schools.

Teachers should examine classroom instruction, assessment tasks, and student performance, Newmann believes, for whether they are “authentic” in construction of knowledge, disciplined inquiry, and value beyond school. He defines “authenticity” using the following criteria:

For Assessment Tasks

1. Organization of information. The task asks students to organize, synthesize, interpret, explain, or evaluate complex information in addressing a concept, problem, or issue.
2. Consideration of alternatives. The task asks students to consider alternative solutions, strategies, perspectives, or points of view in addressing a concept, problem, or issue.
3. Disciplinary content. The task asks students to show understanding and/or use ideas, theories, or perspectives considered central to an academic or professional discipline.
4. Disciplinary process. The task asks students to use methods of inquiry, research, or communication characteristic of an academic or professional discipline.
5. Elaborated written communication. The task asks students to elaborate on their understanding, explanations, or conclusions through extended writing.
6. Problem connected to the world beyond the classroom. The task asks students to address a concept, problem, or issue that is similar to one they have encountered or are likely to encounter in life beyond the classroom.
7. Audience beyond the school. The task asks students to communicate their knowledge, present a product or performance, or take some action for an audience beyond the teacher, classroom, and school building.

For Classroom Instruction

1. Higher-order thinking. Instruction involves students in manipulating information and ideas by synthesizing, generalizing, explaining, hypothesizing, or arriving at conclusions that produce new meaning and understandings for them.
2. Deep knowledge. Instruction addresses central ideas of a topic or discipline with enough thoroughness to explore connections and relationships and to produce relatively complex understandings.
3. Substantive conversation. Students engage in extended conversational exchanges with the teacher and/or their peers about subject matter in a way that builds an improved and shared understanding of ideas and topics. 4. Connections to the world beyond the classroom.
Students make connections between substantive knowledge and either public problems or personal experiences.

For Student Performance

Newmann uses these standards to assess the intellectual quality of student performance in mathematics and social studies. With adaptation to the different disciplines, he notes, they can be used to assess the quality of student performance in a variety of academic subjects.

1. Analysis. Mathematics: Student performance demonstrates thinking with mathematical content by organizing, synthesizing, interpreting, hypothesizing, describing patterns, making models or simulations, constructing mathematical arguments, or inventing procedures. Social Studies: Student performance demonstrates higher order thinking with social studies content by organizing, synthesizing, interpreting, evaluating, and hypothesizing to produce comparisons, contrasts, arguments, application of information to new contexts, and consideration of different ideas or points of view.

2. Disciplinary Concepts Mathematics: Student performance demonstrates an understanding of important mathematical ideas that goes beyond application of algorithms by elaborating on definitions, making connections to other mathematical concepts, or making connections to other disciplines. Social Studies: Student performance demonstrates an understanding of ideas, concepts, theories, and principles from social disciplines and civic life by using them to interpret and explain