Conventional testing and authentic assessment are two very different methods of assessing young children. Many school districts rely heavily on conventional testing. Many nonprofit entities also rely on the scores of conventional testing to prove that there program is beneficial and worth funding. When it comes to assessing young children, authentic assessments has advantages over conventional testing.
Conventional testing refers to assessments that are standardized. This means all aspects of the assessment, including the materials used, the way the questions are asked, and the recording of the data are constant across all children. Conventional testing instruments typically either come with their own “kit” of items to be used, such as pictures, blocks, lacing materials, and other toys or a detailed list of what materials should be purchased for use. The requirement of all children being tested with the exact same materials is to ensure a level playing field, and avoid variance based on differences such as the color of blocks being different shades of red. What the child is asked to do with the material is typically scripted and standardized. How the child responds to the material is also typically standardized.
The results of the standardized testing compares one child against all the other children his age tested in that group. While standardization is a good way to control the many variables that can occur during assessment, the “one size fits all” approach is not a goof fit for assessing children with special needs. In fact, using conventional testing methods on young children with special needs can hinder decision-making and judgment when it comes to referrals and educational plans for these children. In addition, the results of conventional testing show a sampling of the child’s abilities. These generalizations of the child’s ability are often not a true reflection of all the child is actually capable of. Despite efforts to create a level playing field, conventional testing does just the opposite in children with special needs.
Authentic assessment uses observations in the child’s real environment to determine their abilities. The child is observed, or information is reported, based on the child’s performance in natural settings and experiences. Natural settings may include preschools or childcare environments, the child’s home, or places the child frequents such as the grocery store or playground. This differs from conventional testing, where the child is typically set at a table by himself and guided through a series of scripted exercises or questions.
In authentic assessment, the child’s response to daily routines is observed in context, allowing the child to demonstrate his abilities in his own way. For example, in conventional testing a child might be asked to find a toy hidden under a cup by sight to show mastery of object permanence. In authentic assessment, a visually impaired child has the opportunity to show that he has grasped this concept by finding the hidden toy with is hands. Authentic assessment encourages teaching, and items assessed are part of the curriculum. This type of assessment produces information about functional behavior of a child in a typical setting to show what the child really knows and can do. Results pertain to that particular child only.
It is because of the shortcomings of conventional testing when assessing young children with disabilities that Neisworth and Bagnato argue that conventional testing should be done away with completely when assessing young children, and that only authentic assessment methods are valid.