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The "True Test" for Computer Science Students (and Teachers)

One of the frequently used markers in designing an authentic assessment is ensuring that it is "tied to real-world contexts and constraints, and require the student to "do" the subject."

Grant Wiggins asks a great question in many of his assessment articles. One question that permeates is, "What is a true test?" In Wiggins's explanation, a "true assessment" not only measures intellect but should also be a replica of performance that professionals experience every day yet differentiated to the appropriate age. The assessment should not measure a checklist of the average abilities that other students can achieve and the rote content from a text but should be less superficial, less recall of a single performance, and mirror the real-world goals.

When designing an authentic assessment for Computer Science, we first need to identify what are the actual tasks that we want our students to be good at by the end of the course. The "test" of proficiency in code should not be completed at the end of teaching each concept or done because we need another grade in the gradebook. A well-designed assessment is similar to a programmer's daily role to get the job done.

As educators, we must first decide the activities students will be good at and the proficiency level we wish them to reach before assessing them. What is it that we want them to do is the primary focus.

It is sometimes difficult to know or understand a professional programmer's role if you have never been a programmer. Therefore, designing activities that mirror authentic jobs in the field may be difficult. However, with proper research and discussion with other professionals, we can devise the student's learning experiences more accurately. Look for the skills needed as a programmer as well as the content and knowledge. Also, depending on the students' age, specialization in a particular field, such as front-end design or Machine Learning, or web development, maybe a primary focus of skills. If students are younger, focus on developing computational and soft skills, such as learning new concepts and applying them to other problems, communication skills, or asking good questions. The specific coding language may be a perishable skill for some students' future; however, focusing on durable skills can help ensure authenticity to the real-world experiences.

Grant refers to a concept known as "evidence of knowing." Knowledge is vital for students to obtain during instruction. Computer Science teachers have a curriculum filled with content that needs to be understood and recalled frequently to succeed. However, the ability to recall information is not an authentic assessment of a programmer. For example, knowing that a list is mutable, used to store and access various data types, be nested, and looped through is fundamental for a student to obtain and know. However, assessing the regurgitation of these facts in a multiple-choice test is not a valid assessment. Students should use this knowledge about lists to determine when to use a list constructively, develop the code, and solve a unique problem in an authentic challenge.

As you dissect the curriculum, look for areas in the learning that focus on recall and disconnected, "dysfunctional habits" and switch them for more process-focused, connected, and active activities that allow students to "do" the learning. The process of solving the problem becomes a valid assessment versus the final product. If students are not active or "doing" over 75% of the course time, ask yourself, are students learning as a programmer?

If designed well, the learning should be messy, require students to make a decision, and be more connected to real-life situations. Be prepared to evaluate a variety of answers to assessments. It may be difficult to rank or compare the assessments with a single grade, and quality feedback should become more important than the number grade. However, rest assure, accountability for learning will be evident. Only after this type of learning is completed can a "true test" of learning be made.

Works Cited

“Authentic Assessment.” Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning, citl.indiana.edu/teaching-resources/assessing-student-learning/authentic-assessment/index.html.

Wiggins, Grant. “A True Test: Toward More Authentic and Equitable Assessment.” Phi Delta Kappan, vol. 92, no. 7, 2011, pp. 81–93., doi:10.1177/003172171109200721.