Spot the Difference: Performance Task Assessment vs. Authentic Assessment

It’s an age old question: What is the difference between a performance task assessment and an authentic assessment? Well, maybe it’s not that old of a question…

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All of us have fond memories of meticulously bubbling in multiple-choice questions during our youth. Remember that time you bubbled in an answer so darkly there was graphite dust all over your desk that you smudged into a colossal masterpiece? Or that time I had difficulty with a question and bubbled in every single choice only to erase them all later because I decided the fourth choice, the last one I thought would be right, was actually the answer all along? It took me three days and nights to erase the other three marks I had made in my haste. Wait. That never happened because no one likes a bubble test of doom. 

Traditional tests require students to choose from multiple choice questions, provide short answers, and otherwise prove that they memorized a prescribed path to get where the test wants them to go. Traditional tests are good for one type of student: the traditional student. This, in my world, is a student who easily maintains attention day-in and day-out, never misses school, asks and answers questions during most discussions, eats a well-balanced meal to support concentration, progresses through content at an expected speed, and doesn’t question “Why am I learning this?” because it’s so clear why he or she is learning it…isn’t it?


We know students are not “traditional” students in the sense that they should not sit row-by-row, a foot apart from one another with a sole pencil on their desk. They do not have perfect attendance, they aren’t focused every single second of the day, and they do not like broccoli and spinach. Teachers don’t love giving students traditional tests because, well, they’re not traditional students. Instead, more and more teachers are beginning to use performance task assessments and authentic assessments. Let’s talk about this!

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I don’t think so, but some teachers do.

To me, there is a fundamental difference. Can you spot it? 

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Performance task assessments are valuable in that they allow students a chance to show understanding through…performing!

I think of a performance task as a series of problems that assesses a few different skills. Students are given an situation and they are guided through a series of questions that are directly related to that situation. Perhaps they are asked to solve an equation, draw a diagram, or explain their thinking using words. The important part here is students are not provided with multiple choice options and they are not expected to simply fill in a blank. They are expected to show their thinking and work through a series of connected problems that reflect situations in the real-world. 

Here is a good example of a performance task assessment from the Michigan Department of Education: Lemonade Stand Performance Task Assessment


This performance task introduces a situation: operating a lemonade stand. There are a series of questions related to the lemonade stand, like how many cups are sold in a given month and how many cups are sold over four different weeks. Students are asked to read graphs and interpret information, then use that information to perform on the assessment.

It’s paper and pencil. All the problems are related to the same situation. It focuses on a few different math skills (adding/subtracting, comparing, graphing). It requires students provide the short answer. It’s a performance task.

In my opinion, the only thing missing from this performance task is the opportunity or requirement for the student to explain her or his thinking through words. Majorly important. screen-shot-2017-01-28-at-8-33-57-pm

Authentic assessments are valuable in that they allow students a chance to show understanding through…authentically performing!

Sound familiar?

I think of authentic assessments as a hands-on, real-world, project-based way to demonstrate learning. This is not paper and pencil like performance task assessments are. Instead, students work towards creating something tangible and real. More importantly, students work to create something meaningful. 

We use that word in education a lot: meaningful. We know that when work is meaningful, students are more highly engaged and likely to become invested in their learning. This makes authentic assessments appealing for educators and students alike: investment is at a high when these types of assessments are used. Even better, they often mimic, to some extent, the types of real-world problems students may encounter in their lives. This makes authentic assessments so valuable.

Here is an example of an authentic assessment: Build Your Own Robot Hands-On Measurement and Line Segment Activity


In this authentic assessment, students practice using line segments and measuring lines to create a robot for the teacher.

Here’s an example of another: “A Long Walk to Water” Summative Authentic Performance Assessment

In this authentic assessment, students create public service announcements about one of the controversial topics in the book “A Long Walk to Water” by Linda Sue Park: genocide or clean drinking water.

Finally, here’s an example of a third authentic assessment: Extreme Weather Summative Authentic Performance Assessment


In this authentic assessment, students become weathermen and anchors to describe extreme weather coming to the area!

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Performance Task Assessments:  A series of related questions, often assessing a few skills, completed with paper and pencil.

Authentic Assessment: A hands-on, project-based assessment that is meaningful because of the real-world problem presented. Students create a tangible product.

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There is one thing that I want to say about both performance task assessments and authentic assessments that really guides my thinking about these two types of assessment.

These assessments are the most meaningful, engaging, and genuine when students work together. 

Our students are going to be colleagues in the workplace. They are going to be collaborating, communicating, and compromising in whatever career they choose. To me, having students work through performance task assessments and authentic assessments TOGETHER is so important. Through working together, students discuss their thinking out loud, they persuade each other to try new things, they think as a group, leaders emerge and realize that leadership means listening to the input of everyone in the group. When working together, students take risks, they are less fearful of failure, and they navigate disagreements amongst each other. Using and refining these skills, these 21st century skills, is just as important as completing the assessment.


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