Alternatives to Standardized Testing

Part 1: In Defense of Standardized Testing
Part 2: Alternatives to Standardized Testing
Part 3: Standardized Tests: NAEP, PIRLS, TIMSS, PARCC, PISA, ITBS, and CLT

Standardized testing comes with a sordid history of intentional discrimination, perverse incentives, suspicious discrepancies in scores, and outright cheating. What are the alternatives?

In my research for this blog series, a 2015 article by NPR about alternatives to standardized testing was referenced repeatedly. There were four main alternatives.
1. Sampling
Summary: This is essentially the same as standardized testing, but instead of testing all students, it would test a statistically representative group of students. This is what the NAEP and PISA do.
My Thoughts: I am not completely against this approach. It could be a decent compromise. But I would want my child to be assessed each year. I think it is valuable to see where my child stands in relation to children in the school, district, state, and nationally. This isn’t an attempt to boast about the score, it gives valuable information to parents because the tests give a reference point that is beyond the classroom grades and that is comparable with other locations. Does the test score roughly match my child’s grades? This ERIC Digest provides an excellent summary of how to use/interpret the results of a standardized test.
2. Stealth Assessment
Summary: This is basically gamification. Assessing students with their performance on a computer program.
My Thoughts: Technology can be amazing. But I don’t think this would be a wise direction to move towards. I have not seen any data on the validity of stealth assessment (I don’t think there is much research here yet). It would also bring up even more equity issues than the current set of standardized tests.
3. Multiple Measures
Summary: Instead of measuring based on one assessment (the test) it could use social and emotional skills surveys, game-based assessments (stealth assessment) and performance or portfolio-based assessments.
My Thoughts: There is important data here that would help parents, teachers, administrators, and policy makers, and it would seem obvious to me that we should assess schools and teachers on multiple measures. But wouldn’t the same accusations of bias involved in standardized testing be there for the surveys as well? And, since they are about social and emotional skills/norms, wouldn’t that be even more controversial than standardized academic tests?
Portfolio assessments should not be considered as a replacement for standardized tests because, based on what they are, it is impossible to standardize them. They can be great tools at the teacher/school level though.
I’ll spend some space talking about performance assessments later. They are the most promising alternative.
4. Inspections
Summary: An inspector will come and assess a variety of factors in the school.
My Thoughts: Even with observations, we cannot reliably assess individual teachers because there are so many variables (Wiliam, Leadership for Teacher Learning, Ch 2). Evaluating an entire school or school system in this manner would be exponentially more difficult.
Using inspections would give us good data (we should have some sort of inspection data as part of a multiple measures approach), but it would be much more expensive than standardized testing due to the required man hours and would be a very different type of data. It would not tell us much about what students are or are not learning.

The Most Promising Alternative

The specific alternative to standardized tests I find most promising is a type of performance based assessment. Though there are very significant challenges that performance assessments will have to hurdle before I would be willing to consider replacing standardized tests with performance assessments. 

The performance assessment would have to be externally imposed on schools in a similar way standardized tests currently are. The assessment would also have to be standardized. The purpose here is two-fold. Standardization allows for comparisons between different groups of students and it helps control the bias.

If the assessment is not standardized and given in a standardized manner, then the data generated will not be very useful for anything broader than the context the assessment was given in. There would be too many variables. The performance assessment should also be externally imposed because these assessments should function as a type of audit on the system. Is it working? Are all students being educated?

The last hurdle may be the largest. There is a paucity of research on performance assessments, and alternatives to standardized tests in general (Garcia & Pearson, 1994). I was not able to find anything more recent. It could be that I just don’t know the right search terms. If you are aware of more recent research on possible replacements for standardized tests, please send it my way either in the comments below or on Twitter (@Teacher_Fulton). We should not replace standardized tests with performance assessments until they have developed a track record at least as reliable as standardized tests.

The next post in this series will give an overview of several common standardized tests. (coming soon)

William, D. (2016). Leadership for Teacher Learning: Creating a Culture Where All Teachers Improve So That All Students Succeed. Learning Sciences International.

1 thought on “Alternatives to Standardized Testing

  1. Pingback: In Defense of Standardized Testing | TeachingScience

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