Debates surrounding standardized testing cite a long list of positives and negatives.
Proponents of standardized testing tout benefits like uniformity, ease of comparison, accountability, and charting of individual progress. Opponents suggest more holistic ways to measure students’ abilities and progress.
At the end of the day, no one is trying to handicap students. Each “side” wants to offer students and teachers options that lead to success.
We’ve done an in-depth analysis of why educators are for—or against—standardized testing. Today, let’s look at the other side. That is—if you’re opposed to standardized testing, what are the options?
Are there good solutions to measure success apart from the frequent, high-stakes tests currently used by public schools?
Proponents of alternatives have quite a few ideas up their sleeves! From highly creative “stealth assessments” to “sampling”, there are options for everyone. For those willing to meet modern education halfway, not every solution includes completely forgoing traditional standardized tests.
If you’ve ever wondered whether there was a better way for your child or students, you may find some of these options appealing!
1. Multiple Measures
The multiple measures approach uses a combination of assessments to follow student progress without the high-stakes standardized approach. Along with assessments, it also makes use of data apart from tests, such as graduation rates and demographic information.
- Game-based assessments: Game-based assessments seek to measure the learning process in action. They’re often “administered” in the form of a computer game. AAA Lab at Stanford University has developed web-based tests in which students complete tasks that measure their minds’ abilities.
In one game tested by Stanford, students were given the opportunity to design a school poster of their choice. Basketball toss or pie bake-off? Arial or Times New Roman font? Students navigated these decisions and were given options for feedback. They could choose between hearing compliments about their work or complaints. Compliments might affirm that so far they’d included all the necessary data. Complaints might critique how cramped the text was.
Dan Schwartz, the director of Stanford’s AAA Lab, says these games “are not just measures of what the student already knows, but attempts to measure whether they are prepared to continue learning when they’re no longer told exactly what to do.”
- Social and emotional skills surveys: These surveys are designed to gauge the social-emotional skills of students, as well as how they perceive the social-emotional climate of their learning environment. They usually take the form of questionnaires trying to assess students’ attitudes and experiences.
The student might answer questions about how likely they are to raise their hand and ask a question in class, or how likely they are to try something difficult. They might have several response options ranging from “very often” to “very rarely”, or “never.” Schools sometimes develop their own surveys, but the reliability of such surveys is not guaranteed for psychometric (measuring the mind) purposes.
Options For Youth Public Charter Schools notes several benefits of social-emotional learning. These include academic success, fewer behavioral problems, less emotional distress, and positive social behavior. With social and emotional skills surveys, teachers and students can get insights into areas of social and emotional strength or need, with the hopes of enriching the academic experience and preparing students for life.
As wholesome as this approach sounds, social-emotional learning (also known as SEL) has also become a conservative buzzword—and not in a good way.
Some critics of social-emotional learning say that schools are overstepping their role and infringing on the job of parents. SEL is also under fire for incorporating controversial racial and sexual concepts into classrooms.
- Portfolios: One of the benefits of portfolios is that they give a “richer, multidimensional picture of the students’ capabilities” by having the student assemble and present a body of work. Whatever the subject matter, portfolios students the opportunity to demonstrate the depth and breadth of what they’ve learned.
They also give students practice in exercising communication and presentation skills that aren’t measured by standardized testing. A portfolio presentation requires the student to express their personal level of knowledge verbally or visually in a way that the audience understands. Portfolios offer opportunities for creativity and originality that standardized tests don’t present.
While not a pure “alternative” to standardized testing, sampling reduces the frequency of standardized testing. This approach administers standardized tests to a sample group of students (rather than every student) and considers the results to represent the trajectory of the whole group.
Anna Kamenetz, author of the book The Test: Why Our Schools are Obsessed With Standardized Testing,” puts it this way: “Accountability could be achieved at the district level by administering traditional standardized tests to a statistically representative sampling of students, rather than to every student every year. That’s how the “Nation’s Report Card” works. Formally known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, it’s one of the longest-running and most trusted tests in the U.S. education arsenal, even though it’s not attached to high stakes. It’s given to a different sample of students each year, in grades 4, 8, and 12. The widely respected international test PISA is given to a sample of students too.”
3. Stealth Assessment
As the name implies, teachers administer stealth assessments as an integrated, almost-hidden part of another activity. This approach is considered “passive data collection.” Proponents believe it can reduce test-taking anxiety because the participants don’t see themselves as “taking a test.” Reducing test-taking pressure allows the student more freedom to relax and recall what they’ve learned.
Companies like Dreambox, Scholastic, and Khan Academy produce software that collects every answer students give as they do classwork. Anna Kamenetz explains, “The companies that develop this software argue that it presents the opportunity to eliminate the time, cost and anxiety of ‘stop and test’ in favor of passively collecting data on students’ knowledge over a semester, year or entire school career.”
Kimberly O’Malley, the senior vice president of school research at Pearson Education thinks invisible, integrated assessment is the future. She says, “We can monitor students’ learning day to day in a digital scenario. Ultimately, if we’re successful, the need for, and the activity of, stopping and testing will go away in many cases.”
Stealth assessment helps keep the focus on actually learning rather than just practicing how to give the right answer on a formal test.
The nation of Scotland is a great example of using inspections to assess the quality and success of academic environments. Inspectors go to local schools to “observe lessons, look at student work and interview both students and staff members.”
These school inspectors use “Quality Indicators” (QIs) to create professional evaluations of school success. Education Scotland says, “Inspections and reviews use selected QIs, themes from QIs or look at themes across QIs. We use these QIs to identify and report what is working well, what needs to improve and examples of highly effective and sector leading practice.”
Quality indicators for a school’s curriculum include evaluating “learning pathways.” A good curriculum “provides flexible learning pathways which lead to raising attainment through meeting the needs and aspirations of all our learners,” says Scotland’s education department. School administrators and teachers are also taught how to self-evaluate how well they’re meeting these quality standards.
Inspections are a mostly unexplored avenue that schools in the U.S. should consider for evaluating the success of their academic programs, teaching approaches, and student outcomes.
Standardized testing is certainly not the only measure for student success available today.
Today, we looked at other options:
- a combination of lower-stakes assessments
- Testing sample groups of students
- “stealth” assessments that measure student progress as they learn
- Inspections that use quality experts to assess school outcomes
Are the days of the standardized test numbered? Read up on why advocates want to keep standardized testing around and let us know what you think!