Authentic Assessments: Prioritizing the Whole Student

The Ensemble seeks to connect and inform all people who are committed to ensemble music education for youth empowerment and social change.

Authentic Assessments: Prioritizing the Whole Student

Diogo Pereira, Founder and Executive Director, Harmony Project Phoenix


Isabella and Oscar collaborate on their flute parts. Photo: Harmony Project Phoenix.

I have always been fascinated by alternative educational models that deviate from traditional methods, particularly those that emerge from necessity. One notable example is the El Sistema movement, which has greatly impacted the global classical music community in recent years. The growth of El Sistema programs has taught us that access and excellence was a false dichotomy. Furthermore, El Sistema’s diversity and inclusivity have exposed, by stark contrast, the homogeneity of traditional orchestral institutions.

When education occurs outside of traditional settings and expectations, it often reveals the hidden, ongoing issues of our practices. To me, one of the most crucial and unsettling questions has been: “Why do schools place too much emphasis on assessments?”

After reading Sir Ken Robinson’s book Out of Our Minds a couple of years ago, I started to reflect on the limitations of mass education in the 21st century and how traditional standardized test methods hinder the development of creativity.

A new, multidimensional approach to education and assessment that sees the student as a whole is urgently needed. As community organizers, we work with students who often lack basic needs such as food and health care but are still evaluated by the same standardized test assessments. For example, who has never encountered a situation where a child required glasses to be able to see the music in front of them in music class?

This raises important questions about how we put our values into action. How do we create new assessment practices that take into account the whole person? And how do we foster empathy and a sense of belonging among students?

In response to these concerns, our team at Harmony Project Phoenix has implemented a student-centered approach to assessments called “Authentic Assessments”.

Sample Assessment.

Authentic assessments are projects that engage students in their own learning journeys and can be implemented by all ages and classes in the program throughout the academic school year. At the Harmony Project Phoenix, these authentic assessments focus particularly on Autonomy, Creativity, and Empathy. For example, in the Empathy assessment, students lead the project, with teachers serving as facilitators. Students are paired up by skill level and take turns teaching each other their own compositions. The following week, each student performs the composition of their partner. Assessment criteria include the ability to establish and maintain healthy relationships with peers, communicate clearly, listen effectively, resist negative social pressure, and resolve conflicts constructively.

During the assessment, students fill out self-assessment forms, providing feedback to their classmates and themselves. The teacher’s role in these assessments is to facilitate, and students are encouraged to share their notes with their peers.

You are welcome to use the Authentic Assessments we created by checking out the descriptions and self-assessment forms at this link. They’re all yours to use, recreate, or share as you see fit. It’s work in progress.

It is crucial to understand the purpose of education through the eyes of those we serve. The traditional false dichotomy of success and failure imposed by mainstream education’s standardized tests no longer aligns with the needs of children and youth. It is time for a new, multidimensional approach that prioritizes the well-being, growth, and development of the student as a whole. Hopefully, authentic assessments can be a small step in this direction.


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