Authentic Tanakh Assessments: a Typology

Authentic assessments and “real life”

Assessments are authentic, write Wiggins and McTighe, the creators of Understanding by Design, if they are “set in a scenario that replicates or simulates the ways in which a person’s knowledge and abilities are tested in real-world situations”… and if they “[replicate] key challenging situations in which adults are truly ‘tested’ in the workplace, in civic life, and in personal life.” There are other criteria for what makes assessments authentic, but the idea that they be as connected as possible to “real life” is critical, harking back to Dewey’s argument that education should be about living, rather than preparation for future living.

Readers who know the Understanding by Design (UbD) literature well will no doubt recall the kinds of assessment examples suggested by Wiggins and McTighe: figuring out the ideal size for packing containers (math); designing a nutritional menu for a camp (health studies); building a four-day tour of Virginia for a group of foreign students (geography); and so on.

It’s noticeable that many of the UbD assessment examples come from the sciences, where it’s much easier to create “real life” scenarios for assessments. In real life, you do need to use math in designing packing containers; you do need to use geography to design a study tour. The demand for such “real life” assessments presents a challenge for us as teachers of Tanakh, where there are no analogous “real life” situations in the workplace, civic life and personal life. How, then, do we create authentic Tanakh assessments?

A typology of approaches for authentic Tanakh assessments

I would like to suggest a typology of four helpful approaches to authentic Bible assessment. This typology has emerged from many years of experience as a consultant for the Jewish Day School Standards and Benchmarks Project. This is a project of the Melton Center for Jewish Education of the Davidson School of Education of the Jewish Theological Seminary, funded by AVI CHAI, and has over the past seven years worked with many schools in the RAVSAK community.

In what follows, I’ll use examples all drawn from Genesis 16. In this chapter, Sarai, barren, suggests that Abram procreate with Hagar as a surrogate; “chaos ensues.” The examples all assume that students have been studying Genesis 16, and that the teacher wishes to seek evidence of their learning. Ideally, the students will have received the assessment instructions early on during their learning of the unit, so that there is clarity about the kinds of skills they will be expected to demonstrate.

Pretend you’re in the Tanakh

A typical example of this kind of assessment would be as follows: Imagine you are Abram, and you are writing your journal entry the morning after Sarai has told you to procreate with Hagar. How do you feel? What possible responses might you consider? What are the pros and cons of doing what Sarai suggests?

Of course, the scoring guide or rubric for this assessment would require students to show knowledge of the text, to quote verses and perhaps commentaries, and to express empathy with the characters. The journal entry that the students submit would, we hope, demonstrate their mastery of the text itself as well as the various questions of motivation and relationship that pervade this rich story.

This assessment attempts to recreate a sense of “real life” by placing the students in the Biblical text and asking them to grapple with it as if they were there. It’s written Bibliodrama, as it were. Is it as “real” as the assessment examples given by Wiggins and McTighe? No: but it seeks to make things as real as possible.

Transport the Tanakh into contemporary situations

If the “pretend” mode of authentic Tanakh assessment asks students to pretend that they are in the Tanakh, the “transport” mode does the opposite, and asks students to transport the events of the text into contemporary scenarios. Staying with Genesis 16, a different way to assess students’ knowledge of the chapter in an authentic manner might be to ask them to create a reality show concept based on Genesis 16, entitled “Real Housewives of Canaan.” The assessment might ask them to write a script for an episode of this imaginary show, in which Sarai and Hagar argue their positions to the camera, followed by a decision-time moment for Abram. As in the previous example, the students would have to demonstrate through this assessment that they understand the text deeply, quoting verses in Hebrew, explaining, in the characters’ voices, why they feel the way they do, etc.

It doesn’t have to be a reality TV show; there are multiple ways to transport the Tanakh into real life contexts and scenarios. Students could be asked to create a modern-day version of the story set in their hometown; or to write Yishmael’s Facebook page. Of course, this isn’t “real” in the same way that the UbD examples are real, but it’s a way to bridge the gap between the text and contemporary reality.

Compare the Tanakh to real life

An example of this approach might be to write a book review comparing the relationships between Abram, Sarai and Hagar to relationships in The Help. Students would have to discuss how the power struggles between the biblical characters are similar to and different from the ones read/seen in the contemporary book/movie. How do the characters in each story succeed or fail in transcending the social barriers between them? What difference does the narrator’s voice make? And so on.

While this particular example might be a nice assessment for slightly older students, changing the contemporary context could easily change the developmental level to that of younger students: imagine a similar kind of assessment based around, say, asking students to compare Joseph’s relationship with his brothers to Harry Potter’s with his cousin Dudley.

Relate the Tanakh to questions of modern Jewish identity

This mode of authentic Tanakh assessment is more appropriate for the late middle or high school grades. You might ask students to set up and video a panel debate between two opposing Jewish psychologists who disagree about whether Abram should be a role model for modern-day Jews. Is his religious approach something to be admired or condemned? How is the religious faith of Abram relevant to the questions of religious identity that we face as young contemporary Jews?

Many biblical texts can be related to questions of modern Jewish identity in this way. Again, the scoring guide or rubric would require students to demonstrate mastery of the Hebrew, deep understanding of the dynamics of the text, and any other elements that were taught in the curriculum.

The dangers of trying too hard to be authentic

In writing assessments for geography or health studies, there’s a danger of trying too hard to be authentic. Students may end up spending so much time on the fonts and graphics for the camp menu that their actual content work is too shallow and does not demonstrate in-depth knowledge and understanding of the content.

In Tanakh assessments too, here are some of the red flags that you might be trying too hard to be authentic:

It’s a cute idea, but it’s too much of a push to make it “fit” what you are trying to assess.

A teacher I was working with had a fabulous and creative idea to have students design a GPS device that, through its functions, would mirror elements of Abraham’s spiritual journey. It was a great idea, but the “real life” context was too far from the content that he actually wanted to assess. The students were confused and spent too much time trying to make the text fit the assessment; the results were poor.

Students spend too much time on the “form” rather than the content.

I call this “PowerPoint syndrome.” There’s nothing wrong with having students present their work using technology and new media; just be careful that the desire for sophistication of presentation does not overshadow the core goal of assessment, which is for students to demonstrate evidence of mastery of the content and skills that they have learned.

It’s too ambitious.

Whenever I see teachers coming up with ideas for students to film movies as assessments, I get nervous. Doing this properly takes a lot of time. If you are going to ask students to use a complex vehicle to demonstrate their learning, make sure you give them enough time, and that you can justify that curricular time spent.

It’s engaging for you, but not necessarily for the students.

Sometimes I see teachers get tremendously excited about an assessment scenario, and forget that their students may not find it as exciting. First-graders don’t watch Big Brother (I hope). So while you might be excited about that as an assessment idea, they might not.

It’s not asking students to enact the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Truly authentic assessments require students to demonstrate higher order thinking skills. An assessment scenario, no matter how cute, funny, or “real-life,” is not authentic unless it demands higher order thinking by the learners. Unless the assessment requires students to evaluate, compare, suggest, classify, formulate, support, recommend, and all those other verbs that embody higher order thinking, it’s not authentic.

Authentic assessment should involve serious writing, at every age and every level. “Authentic” doesn’t mean less academically rigorous. Indeed, as I hope these brief examples have shown, authentic Tanakh assessment almost by definition involves higher order thinking and sophisticated writing skills. But I hope that these examples have also shown that higher order thinking and sophisticated writing skills don’t only happen in five-paragraph essays; you can require students to exhibit them, together with their mastery of the text itself, in assessments that are as authentic and real-life as possible. ♦

Dr. Alex Sinclair is the director of programs in Israel education, and an adjunct assistant professor of Jewish education at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He can be reached at

Alex Sinclair
Teaching Tanakh
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning
Published: Summer 2012