8 Alternatives to High-Stakes Standardised Tests

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November 21st, 2015 2 Comments Features

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It’s official: standardised tests are so unpopular that educators must now bribe students into taking them.

Washington Post blogger Valerie Strauss describes how, in New Jersey, leaders of one district created an “incentive program” designed to give students treats “based on their participation and performance on the Common Core exam.” The program included an American Express gift card lottery for the grade with the highest participation, as well as the awarding of “bonus points” for the next marking period for high scores. The program was scrapped after parents caught wind of it .

Also in New Jersey, students at one secondary academy are now being offered a chance to skip English and math final exams this year if they take the test. The offer was communicated to parents after only 59 percent of the eligible students took the test on the first day it was issued.

In Littleton, Colorado, teachers are awarding students one elective credit for scores of at least “proficient” on the exam. In Louisiana, participating students will be entered into drawing for a free iPad.

Talk about crushing any hope of intrinsic motivation.

It’s clear that most of us–students, parents, teachers–have a problem with the current model, but what’s not clear is how to go about devising alternatives. We’ve heard a lot about performance-based assessment in recent years, and while it’s certainly worth considering, it shouldn’t be the only proposal on the table.

So let’s cut to the chase. If what we’re doing now doesn’t work–and hasn’t worked for over twenty years–then what will? Below we outline eight possible solutions from experts on the subject.

1. Sampling

Anya Kamenetz’s new book, The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed With Standardised Testing–But You Don’t Have to Be combats the issue of high-stakes assessment with four alternatives to the current model. In a recent piece on NPR, she outlines her ideas as follows, beginning with the notion of sampling:

“Accountability could be achieved at the district level by administering traditional standardised tests to a statistically representative sampling of students, rather than to every student every year,” Kamenetz says. “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.”

2. Stealth assessment

“Similar math and reading data, but collected differently.

The major textbook publishers, plus companies like Dreambox, Scholastic and the nonprofit Khan Academy, all sell software for students to practice math and English. These programs register every single answer a student gives.

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. Valerie Shute, a professor at Florida State University and former principal research scientist at ETS, coined the term ‘stealth assessment’ to describe this approach.

Stealth assessment doesn’t just show which skills a student has mastered at a given moment. The pattern of answers potentially offers insights into how quickly students learn, how diligent they are and other big-picture factors.”

3. Multiple measures

“Incorporate more, and different, kinds of data on student progress and [institutional] performance into accountability measures.

Statewide longitudinal data systems now track students in most states from pre-K all the way through high school (and in some states, college). That means accountability measures and interventions don’t have to depend on the outcome of just one test. They could take a big-data approach, combining information from a number of different sources–graduation rates, discipline outcomes, demographic information, teacher-created assessments and, eventually, workforce outcomes. This information, in turn, could be used to gauge the performance of students, [institutions] and teachers over time.

As part of a multiple-measures approach, some districts are also collecting different kinds of information about students.”

3a) Social and emotional skills surveys

“Research shows that at least half of long-term chances of success are determined by nonacademic qualities like grit, perseverance and curiosity. As states expand access to pre-K, they are including social and emotional measures in their definitions of ‘high quality’ preschool. As one component of a multiple-measures system, all schools could be held accountable for cultivating this half of the picture.

The Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland survey both students and teachers on social and emotional factors and use the results to guide internal decision-making. The district uses the Gallup student poll, a 20-question survey that seeks to measure levels of hope, engagement and well-being.

‘Engagement’ is basically a measure of how excited students are to be in the building. Last year, 875,000 students took the Gallup poll nationwide, in grades 5-12. According to one study, student hope scores on this poll do a better job of predicting college persistence and GPA than do high school GPA, SATs or ACT scores.”

3b) Game-based assessments

“Video-game-like assessments, such as those created by GlassLab and the AAA lab at Stanford, are designed to get at higher-order thinking skills. These games are designed to test things like systems thinking or the ability to take feedback–measures that traditional tests don’t get at. Of course, they are still in their infancy.”

3c) Performance or portfolio-based assessments

“Institutions around the country are incorporating direct demonstrations of student learning into their assessment programs. These include projects, individual and group presentations, reports and papers and portfolios of work collected over time. The New York Performance Standards Consortium consists of 28 [institutions], grades 6-12, throughout New York State that rely on these teacher-created assessments to the exclusion of standardised tests. These public [institutions] tend to show higher graduation rates and better college-retention rates, while serving a population similar to that of other urban [institutions].

Performance assessment has had a small, passionate group of supporters going back decades, especially among self-described progressive educators who think standardised tests are too blunt and too one-dimensional to measure the full range of how students learn.

It’s related to two more widespread approaches: project-based learning and portfolios. Projects, like the familiar science fair, are usually a special add-on to the regular curriculum. Portfolios, which you may remember from art or creative writing class, seek to give a richer, multidimensional picture of students’ capabilities by assembling a body of work.

These approaches allow students to follow their own interests and lean into their strengths. They are usually graded with a rubric, not a percentile. They address skills like presentation, communication, and teamwork that are common in the workplace but not part of most traditional [education]–or state-mandated testing.

On top of all that, performance assessment focuses on demonstrations of learning to outside evaluators. Students get a ‘reality check’ by taking their learning before members of the community, and teachers who haven’t taught them.”

Douglas County School District in Colorado started developing its own performance assessments in 2011 to try and measure the kind of thinking and doing students would need for the real world. Teachers now require students to demonstrate knowledge and skills they’ve learned so that they can pinpoint the specific elements of a nuanced learning goal and be able to tell how a student is doing.

4. Inspections

“Scotland is a place where you can see many of the approaches above in action. Unlike the rest of the U.K., it has no specifically government-mandated school tests. [Institutions] do administer a sampling survey of math and literacy, and there is a series of high-school-exit/college-entrance exams that are high stakes for students. But national education policy emphasises a wide range of approaches to assessment, including presentations, performances and reports. These are designed to measure higher-order skills like creativity, students’ well-being and technological literacy as well as traditional academics. [Institutions] and teachers have a lot of control over the methods of evaluation.

At the [institutional] level, Scotland maintains accountability through a system of government inspections that has been in place in the U.K. since 1833. Inspectors observe lessons, look at student work and interview both students and staff members.”

5. Frequent, online, low-stakes testing

Ms Meeta Sengupta, founder of the Center for Education Strategy, says the solution is probably not in less testing, but in more:

“I stick my neck out here as I say this, but I believe that we need to invest in… more tests, with reduced stakes on each test. If there are wider ranges of tests, each designed with care to serve a different purpose and administered frequently and regularly, then each test bears a lower stake.”

Mr. Berlin Fang, Director of Instructional Design at Abilene Christian University, agrees, adding that frequent online testing provides the dual benefits of immediate feedback and reduced teacher workload.

“With online testing, students immediately see the results of their quizzes while memory is fresh,” he says. “Students develop greater mastery by taking advantage of the iterative studying-testing process. If students become aware of the power of quizzing and testing, they may also take the initiative to conduct ‘self-quizzing’ as a way to learn.”

For teachers, technology can significantly shorten the assessment cycle. With online standardised tests, Fang says, computer systems do the grading and provide standardised feedback. “Liberated from the drudgery of manual grading, teachers could spend more time and go to greater depths working directly with students.”

6. Adaptive testing

Beginning this year, more than 3 million students will take part in the first statewide administration of the new California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress for students in third through eighth grades and 11th grade. The interesting part? They use adaptive technology to provide more accurate information about individual student performance.

The tests are an “academic checkup,” designed to give teachers some of the feedback they need to improve instruction. These computer-based exams will replace the former paper-based, multiple-choice assessments in English-language arts and mathematics. And because they are taken online, results will be available more quickly to teachers and institutions so the information can be used to help students learn.

As appropriate technologies becomes more and more advanced, adaptive testing will start looking like a very appealing alternative to the current standardised model.

7. On-demand assessments

Born out of the competency-based model of assessment, on-demand assessments offer more flexible, on-demand opportunities for students to take tests. Instead of requiring every student to take the same test at the same time throughout the year, this alternative lets certain students take assessments when they are ready, and provides opportunities for them to revisit material that they have not mastered.

Noting that on-demand testing contradicts the traditional “fixed academic calendar” approach, Julia Freeland, a Research Fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute, says institutions must reconceptualise their schedules in a far more individualised light if they are to test students on an as-needed basis.

“To scale such a system likely requires the adoption of new technology platforms,” she says. “These platforms will need to track student progress, help to calculate when students are ready to be assessed, and in some cases provide appropriate assessment items on-demand.”

8. Letting students choose

“Each individual should be free to decide which standard he or she wants to pursue,” says Yong Zhao, Director of the Institute of Global and Online Education at the University of Oregon, “whether that means using an established math program such as Singapore math, or the Common Core standards, or developing their own set of standards.” In this way, standards can be used to guide learners, not diagnose them, by suggesting a sequence to follow and describing the knowledge and skills needed in a given field.

“Such information is dynamic, subjective and personal,” Zhao adds. “Those interested in becoming mathematicians might benefit from different math standards than their otherwise inclined peers, for instance.”

About 

Saga Briggs is Managing Editor of InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or Facebook.

2 Responses

  1. Bianca says:

    By acknowledge – I don’t mean in a small section in the copy. I mean by directly linking and referencing her original article.

  2. keiran sawyers says:

    As part of the UK Air Training Corps, we did a version of on-demand assessments whereby students would have assessments over various topics in a subject whenever they felt ready. These tests were also done in silence but with the students having the internet as a resource, as the tests aim to test understanding rather than memory retention. as this is recognised as a UK BTEC in aviation studies, I wonder if you would find this to be a useful way of testing students on their understanding rather than their memory, and therefore be more effective than standardised testing?

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