Sunday, April 22, 2012

9 Ways to Assess without Standardized Tests

Caine's Arcade
You don't assess innovation with bubbletests


You got the message. 

Standardized tests are not what's best for learning. Not only are they not best for learning, but they have become an insurmountable obstacle for innovative educators like me to do my work in schools because helping kids become good and filling in bubbles on a piece of paper is anything but innovative!

Unfortunately, many politicians, parents, and even students don’t know a world without testing and wonder...

“If we don't use standardized tests how will we measure learning, teacher effectiveness, or school effectiveness?”
When people ask me that question, I usually respond with this question:
“How do we assess learning in real life?”
Think about it, learning is rarely measured via a test in real life. For instance, as a educator I had to take a few meaningless tests that no one bothers studying for more than a decade ago but that's it. A few tests 15 years ago and not another test is required the rest of my career. Our elected officials who often impose these tests upon children so they can claim they care about learning don't take tests. My Dad who was a cinematographer never took a test. My boyfriend who is in sales doesn't take tests. My girlfriend who is a professional photographer doesn’t take tests. My best friend who owns a successful fundraising business doesn’t take tests. The reality is that for most of us, success in life has little to do with how well we can fill in bubbles.

School life, needs to take a look at real life measurement tools and consider making the school world, look more like the real world with meaningful and authentic assessment. In short, we should measure individuals by how well they do stuff rather than how well they do the meaningless work of memorize, regurgitate, and fill in bubbles on demand.

9 Ways to Assess Students without Standardized Tests

  1. Look at student’s school work -Students are doing work across the year. Let's assess that, rather than a bubbletest. For instance, we can look at a piece of writing and use a standardized rubric to measure that. We can listen to a recording of a student's reading and retelling and use a standardized measure to assess their readIng and comprehension level. The great thing is that teachers already do this. No need to fork over millions to a publisher and grading staff.
  2. Games -More and more games are being created that allow us to determine a student’s level mastery by their ability to progress in a game. Simulation games/contests and games like Tabula Digita, Manga High are examples.  
  3. Challenges -In real life we’re assessed by how well we do, not how well we fill in bubbles. Instead of bubble tests, support young people in in tackling real challenges to demonstrate their capabilities and get scouted for awesome apprenticeship/internship/career opportunities.  This is exactly what companies like Rad Matter (life is rad, make it matter) do.  
  4. Badges and Points -Folks like Tom Vander Ark (Author, Getting Smart) predict badges will be big in education and I agree. A badge (think boy/girl scouts) is an award for demonstrated mastery of a skill that has become popular as a reward mechanism in games and social networks like In education a badge could be awarded for successful completion of an activity. An example of this is Code Academy co-founded by Columbia U dropout (school got in the way of learning) Zach Sims. Code Academy is a site where you learn to program by actually coding and as you do you receive points and badges as you complete each exercise. I'm a newbie learning Java and html. I have 22 points and 2 badges.
  5. Real World Work -Encourage students to get out of the classroom and into the world doing work in an area of interest. The iSchool is an example of a school that does this well with their Areas of focus Program. Staff supports students in figuring out what it is that interest them and them helps them go out into the world and do it via an internship, apprenticeship, job. Just like in the real world, their work is assessed by their supervisor.
  6. Real World Projects -I talk to so many students who are doing amazing work...just not in school. They're making viral videos, writing for publications or publishing their own blogs, engaging in public speaking, etc. The problem is, in today's paradigm of school, when we do work worthy of the world, this just doesn't matter. Let's change that! When kids are doing amazing things in the world, let's give them credit for it.
  7. Real World Accomplishments Why is it that in most cases, school will only provide credit for that which is done during their hours on their terms. Why can't students get credit for accomplishments achieved outside of school if they provide evidence. For example, complete a marathon, win a dance contest or volleyball tournament, get physical education credit. Compete in a pig competition, get science credit. Write a travel review, get social studies credit. Perform in a recital, get music credit. In these cases, the assessment doesn't come from the school, it comes from the real world, and that's a good thing.
  8. Personal Success Plans -Assessment should be customized to the student, not standardized to the system. This is exactly what happens with a personalized success plan with measurable goals. Teachers work with students to help them identify their goals then develop a real plan to achieve them. This involves input from teachers, mentors, family, friends, and community. The teacher, students, family. mentors, etc. can see at any time the student’s progress at anytime and provide scaffolded support as necessary.
  9. ePortfolios -ePortfolios provide a great way to capture, document, make meaning, and share with others what we learn. They are a wonderful assessment tool that tells much more about a child than a letter or number on a piece of paper.  Not only that, they form the basis of what can lead to academic and career success.  There are numerous ways to create free, student-owned ePortfolios. Knowit App is a new site that is helping students do this work, but as ePortfolio guru Helen Barrett explains, Google Sites and Wikispaces are also great resources.
This isn't that hard and it's better for everyone (students, parents, teachers, school leaders) except the mega-billion dollar testing industry. Now that we've saved millions of dollars and saved countless hours wasted on testing and prepping, how do you think we can better serve students? I have my ideas!

This post also appears in these places.
Dirigo Blue
Minds of Kids


  1. Interesting post. I have found that using games for assessment beneficial. Have you thought of using self-reflection after your assessments?

  2. I like most of these ideas. I'm not a fan of badges, as rewards do not encourage intrinsic motivation; I want my students to learn for learning's sake -- not for points, letter grades or badges.

    Many web-based tools -- blogs, Diigo, wikis, and learning communities -- provide powerful platforms for evaluation (I'm not a fan of the word assessment). Students share information, and the teacher, or peers, can provide immediate feedback.

    These tools, when used appropriately, create amazing two-way feedback -- which is always the best way to learn.

    Thanks again, for a thought-provoking post.

  3. Mark, I have the same problem with badges...I'm so against extrinsic motivation that it always raises red flags to me. What is the essential difference between a badge and a lollipop? Well, it doesn't rot your teeth and it's directly linked to having mastered something. Does that make a difference? I wonder what Alfie Kohn thinks....

  4. @Matt,
    I think self-reflection makes a lot of sense for many types of assessments.

    @Mark Barnes and @Lisa Cooley,
    Personally I really like badges and points like those used in Code Academy. For me it really motivates me and let's me see what I've accomplished. I sort of think of it like skiing/riding. I started at the greens, moved to the blues, then eventually to blacks and double blacks. Not everyone has to move and we can go at our own pace, but the badges, levels give us a common language and ability to connect with those who are where we are. I find the same thing with beach volleyball where we start at rec, move to B, BB, A, AA, AAA and pro. It's motivating to move up a level and a great way to find others who are where you're at or want to be. I think I'm going to add this as another assessment idea. ;)

    1. I think that badges, if used correctly, can be a good motivator. I think that there should be safeguards in place, though, to prevent and discourage the "racking up" of badges simply for achievement's sake. Because then, they're just like grades, really, aren't they? If we have areas of study in which learners must qualify for X number (out of Y possible) badges, and this must be done in a variety of categories, then we can start to groom learners who pursue education in its truest form: get really good at what I love so that I can do what I love for my life, and along the way, try some new things, and dabble here and there, so I can be a well-rounded person who has hobbies and interests outside my work.

  5. Some people like structure and lists, although (being human) even structure freaks love some choice within the structure. I think that a person who loves structure can explore new fields and possible new interests more easily within a game format or with a badges-or-points system.

    One of my daughters loved earning Girl Scout badges; there was a list of activities about horses, for example, and she could choose 6 projects out of 10. Within each project, there were multiple opportunities to discover her own particular interests or make her own choices; still, the fact that there was a structure to follow helped her explore the new topic. In some cases, she really enjoyed exploring a field, benefitted from learning new skills, and treasured the products she made--but she went no further in that field. In other cases, she discovered something that she still enjoys to this day. The extrinsic reward of the badge acted more like a guide within her voluntary journey, and the badge now serves as a reminder of the activities she engaged in and avenues she explored--something to draw a smile or evoke a memory.

    My other two daughters had no desire for such structure and never got into earning badges. I do think that different assessment or evaluation types will work for different people.

  6. I agree that we need alternative assessments to multiple-choice standardized tests. And I have no problem with extrinsic motivation...I often wonder if those opposed to them for kids would show up at their jobs every day if they didn't earn a paycheck...

    That said, my biggest concern is that however we assess we are measuring learner skills through frequent formative assessment and that we change our instruction based on those measures. I'm totally over the argument that "we can't measure learning" or that we can "tell by the look in students' eyes" that they have learned.

  7. Standardized tests are overdone in school. It all started with Bush and No Child Left Behind, which started a disastrous approach. Overall I agree with your posting but with one caveat. It is false to claim that learning in "real life" is rarely measured through tests. If you want to be a pilot, you have to take tests. If you want to be a nurse or a doctor, you have to take tests. If you want to build bridges and be an engineer, you have to take tests. If you want be a first responder, you have to take tests. If you want to be a software engineer, you have to take tests. I don't know about you but I don't want someone operating on me who doesn't know physiology and anatomy and has never demonstrated their competency through an exam. The point is that we should not be using standardized tests as the only measurement of learning. But there is nothing wrong with using tests as one of the instruments to measure learning.

    1. I have no problem with tests that are used for learning. It's the default setting now, but I can see it being useful. Giving a kid a test on something they really want to know can be useful in the way you describe. It's a test with a definite learning goal, as well as a measure of skills/knowledge.

  8. Thanks so much for sharing this blog post! I recently attended a talk with Cathy Davidson who spoke of the issues with standardisation and the need for an overhaul in education Education and the world we are in today are just not corresponding with each other. There is some fantastic teaching and learning happening in schools accross the world, schools intergrating technology in seemless and amazing ways. But then it always comes down to the same thing, standardised assessment. You should also check out this blog post written about an interview with Cathy,

    Thanks for encouraging the shift that will happen soon enough :)


  9. Badges, badges. Aren't degrees like BAs and PhDs just glorified badges?

  10. Badges certainly have a bad scent to them from one point of view, but from another, they are great motivators...Just look at our academic system. We bestow degrees such as MBA and MFA, and PhD on our most accomplished learners at the highest level. Are not these and others simply glorified merit badges? I hold a California Teaching Credential, and earning it allowed me to move to the next level in this "game" called teaching.

  11. I don't like using the term "real world." As I recently heard at a conference by Fisher and Frey; it gives the impression that learning in school is not real. Maybe we can say "community based project" or "out of school accomplishments." On the other hand, the main point is spot on. We have truer and more genuine methods of measuring our students than snap-shot standardized assessments.

  12. As a doctor who actually has to take USMLE exams, I would say these are overrated by physicians, and the entire culture of academic medicine.

    If our society depends on routine standardized assessments of professionals to measure competency and stratify job placement, then I don't think the unneccessary reliance on standardized tests is going to budge. Opponents of standardized tests, myself included, shouldn't limit ourselves to school and college enforcement of tests, but rather, we should question our reliance as a society on standardized tests.

    Much of real-life standardized testing is very commercialized. Test makers and takers have a lot of financial incentive, and speaking out against the tests often has negative job implications or can make one seem weaker or somehow "less intelligent."

    What is unfortunate is the loss of creativity and mutual respect that may result from this. As one user mentioned, "I want my surgeon to demonstrate anatomical knowledge via a test." In this respect, perhaps we are "locked-in" to feel falsely reassured the surgeon with higher boards score will take his or her time while resecting tumor margins -- but is this necessarily true? Who is to say the more caring surgeon (who perhaps was an art major with better motor/spatial skills and hand-eye coordination) never was even considered for a surgery residency because starting with the SAT/ACT all the way through the USMLE step 1/step2 never got to show his/her worth at all -- because they didn't get the job.

    The surgery shelf is mostly internal medidine content and tests general medical knowledge, and it does not test surgical skill.

    If we can't create a world where students will not face exams, we can't expect students won't be learning to take them before they enter this world, and policy makers will continue to allow testing, as it is cost effective and easy to implement for the masses).

    Despite this, there is a strong case that standardized testing does more harm than good. Standardized tests can promote anxiety and unnecessary competitiveness. They can be used -- for better or for worse -- to serve as a cheap/computerized way to assess a person's knowledge.

    We need to strive for better as a society. Would you rather have a surgeon who has performed 15 or 25,000 procedures? In our current system, your surgeon may be better at taking a test than fixing you, and most of the good surgeons are burned out and broke before they even attempt their first surgery.

    We should be training doctors, not robotic test-taking zombies. No wonder so many of us in my field have trouble relaxing and experience burnout and depression.

    Shame on the NMBE and The College Board and ETS!

  13. Coming from a school where we were challenged about our outward recognition policy and forced to move backwards in our thinking - I have a comment on badges.

    Some learners are focused and goal driven to attain skills as shown in the guides and scouting programmes - add to that the President's award or in other countries the Duke of Edinburgh award. Who says they have to "wear" badges? Isn't that the negative part people are reflecting on above? Collect these skills in a portfolio of evidence for a cv - who goes to an interview after varsity wearing a school decorated blazer - aren't we more interested in the organisation's value match after checking for competency?