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Alternative Assessment

by Stephanie Swerdloff King

Assessment: What Is All the Fuss About?
Traditional Assessment
Alternative Assessments
Selecting an Appropriate Assessment
Students' Examples
Levels of Assessment
Let Us Review
Impediments to Using Appropriate Assessment
Benefits of Appropriate Assessment

Stephanie King

Choosing the Appropriate Assessment—The Key to Understanding Alternate Assessment

by Stephanie King


While dipping into the assessment literature in preparation for this article, I was reminded of how overwhelming that body of research and opinions can be:

  • National and state "high stakes" testing
  • Norm-referenced and criterion-referenced assessments
  • Authentic assessment
  • Alternative assessments
  • Portfolios
  • Forced-answers
  • Multiple choice
  • Essays
  • Short answers
  • Performance assessments
  • Rubrics of all sorts

Options and arguments are plentiful. Teacher resource binders and boxes seem thicker and heavier than ever before. Web sites abound. With such a superabundance of information and debate, I want to shout ENOUGH!

My students and I want our assessments to tell us:

  1. Do I know my stuff?
  2. Am I doing a good job?
  3. What should I do next?
  4. Will the world think I am wonderful and let me (move to the next grade, go to college, get a job?…)
  5. Am I done yet?

Early humans, it seems to me, had it much easier than humans today when it comes to assessment. Their assessments were naturally built right into their educational system. A Sumerian scholar, learning to be a scribe, made his tablet correctly or had a soggy mess too muddy to write on or a slab of clay that hardened halfway through his message. An Egyptian student of agriculture who failed to master his lessons went hungry (and appetite is a great spur to mastery, as all who have spent a king's ransom on pizza parties can attest!).

Today, we often lack the organic connections of earlier times where cycles of instruction, example, practice, assessment, and consequences were part of all children's learning experiences. Consequently, we must carefully construct such a cycle if we want to discover:

  1. What has been mastered?
  2. How well has it been mastered?
  3. What has been missed or misunderstood?
  4. What should we do about it?
  5. How should we tell others of our progress?


In most United States schools, paper and pencil tests (usually multiple choice, short answer, and essays) are the predominant means to answer such questions. This form of assessment provides a quick, and relatively easy-to-grade, means to determine students' recall of a body of information.

Excessive dependence on this traditional assessment, however, frequently has unintended side effects. Too many paper and pencil tests of mastery:

  • Kill students' interest in understanding humans' activities on the planet.
  • Fail to provide accurate data about how successfully a student acquired thinking or application skills.
  • Rarely provide the motivation needed to rectify errors or the incentive to acquire more sophisticated understanding.
  • Are often singularly dull!


Social studies teachers have long recognized the limitations inherent in too much reliance on paper and pencil testing and have devised more holistic, lifelike assessment.

Speeches, debates, class presentations of various types, building mock villages, playing the roles of significant figures from history - to name but a few - are all ways that excellent social studies teachers have stimulated students' curiosity while testing students' mastery.

Often, however, when we attempt to articulate why we choose a particular assessment at a particular time, we enter that fuzzy realm where the science and the art of our craft merge. We know that the students need something, or that they know more than what has appeared on a particular test. This fuzzy approach hardly serves us well, however.

A New Rigor Is Required

Most states now require teachers to be more accountable. We are asked to demonstrate our students' mastery to those who fund our work. In addition, as researchers have gained new information about how the brain functions and how humans learn, we know that we can be more precise in using assessments that provide useful feedback about students' mastery of the information or skills presented to them. We have been graced with a plethora of new instruments. Textbooks come with a wide choice of quizzes, CD tests, video tests, alternative assessments, rubrics, and Web-based evaluations. The array is dizzying. What is a teacher to do?

Choosing the Best Assessment

To choose well, we must always begin by looking at the desired end result of instruction. Considering the following types of questions frequently helps:

  1. What does mastery look like?
  2. What does someone who is a master of this material or skill do?
  3. How will we know that we have accomplished our objectives?

An Assessment Model

If we remember how we assess a teenager before granting him or her a driver's license, we see an assessment model that works well.

  1. The teen and society agree that it is time for the new skill to be acquired.
  2. Instruction in the desired skill is offered, and the needed information is shared with the learner.
  3. Lots of opportunities to observe and practice the skill are made available.

The assessment for the license itself has several parts.

  1. There is a paper and pencil test to determine if the applicant knows the rules of the road.
  2. There is an eye test to determine if the aspiring driver can actually see the road.
  3. There is a road test, during which the aspirant must actually drive!
  4. Failing students may repeat the process as often as desired until success is reached.

Notice that this assessment process really has two parts:

  1. It identifies those skills or abilities necessary for mastery.
  2. It tests each skill or ability "appropriately."

Since a complex set of skills and information must be assessed, a variety of tools have been chosen. At some stages one type of assessment might be appropriately substituted for another. For example, an oral examination or online computer quiz might effectively replace a written one to determine one's knowledge of the rules of the road. However, substituting a written test for a road test would not effectively demonstrate an applicant's ability to drive – though perhaps driving a car in a computer simulation would prove to be a more effective assessment (and less frightening to adults) than an actual road test.

Applying the Model to a History Class

Let's consider how this approach might work in a history class.

1. The teen and society agree that it is time for the new skill to be acquired.
This is not as easy as it looks. Often, my students feel no need for the "new skill" or knowledge. I like to ask my secondary students to list what they believe well-educated, intelligent people ought to know about the topic under discussion. This often focuses the thoughts of students who might be inclined to answer the question, "What do you want to know?" with a resounding, "Nothing! My brain is already too full."

We usually need to spend some time on this stage as we identify our learning tasks. Use of a K-W-L chart or other group response activity helps at this stage. [This chart requires students to list What I Know, What I Want to Know, and What I Learned. For further information, see Reading in the Content Area in the eTeach Archives.]

Student working on chart Student working on chart
Student working on chart Student working on chart
Student working on chart Student working on chart

2. Instruction in the desired skill is offered, and the needed information is shared with the learner.

3. Lots of opportunities to observe and practice the skill are made available.
As in our example with the driver's test, this stage is intimately tied to the assessment stage. When students know what they will be expected to do with the information that they are to acquire, they are more focused. Work has purpose and clarity.


Choosing appropriate assessment for each component involves identifying the cluster of assessments that best demonstrate mastery of the skill(s) or content under consideration. It may be paper and pencil tests, oral recitation, visual displays, or PowerPoint slides for one piece. It may be demonstrating, acting, singing, arguing, or presenting in another piece.

By using a framework, such as Bloom's Taxonomy and Gardner's concept of multiple intelligences, you can match assessment tasks to the level and type of knowledge being acquired, and the capacities of the learner.

In all cases, the key to choosing the best assessment is to search for a "fit" between the task and the knowledge/skill to be acquired. To help find that "fit," I usually ask: "What does a person actually do in the world with this skill or information that my students are acquiring? Can my students do this too?"

This is where the fun begins. It is here that the science and the art of our craft intersect, as there are a multitude of ways to answer this question.

  • You might consider tasks that people do. For example:
    1. Reading and writing tasks
    2. Verbal tasks
    3. Artistic tasks
    4. Non-verbal tasks
  • You might look at vocational tasks. For example:
    1. Historian
    2. Museum curator
    3. Writer/journalist
    4. Criminologist
    5. Movie producer or writer
    6. Architect
    7. Graphic designer
    8. Set designer
    9. Fashion designer

The list is really endless. I then ask myself and my students: "How would we like to demonstrate our competence and knowledge, in the context of the chosen task or vocation?"


Draw what you know.


Created by Daniel Tse and Erasmo Garcia, this picture depicts Polk as the "dark horse" presidential candidate who, once elected, leads America into war with Mexico. He is shown bursting through the Mexican flag, as represented by the colors of the sky. If you look closely, you will see the soldiers battling in the lower right hand corner.

Sing what you know.

Picture of Student Rap

Kevin Garcia, Erica Orofino, and Glenda Reeves wrote and performed the following rap, describing the presidency of Harrison.

Write what you know.

my journal

One of my favorite history projects is journal writing. Inventing or recreating journals is a powerful way to allow students to demonstrate their knowledge, and to let history live.

The journal writing project illustrates how I build authentic assessment tasks for students. Please keep in mind that while the assessments below apply to a journal project, the basic principles apply to any learning task.


There are two levels of assessment.

  • The learning that occurred as a result of creating the original product
  • The learning that occurred as a result of using or observing the product

Some key assessment questions for a journal project are:

1. Is it technologically correct?
Was the journal written with or does it simulate the tools and the style characteristic of the time period? That means that Sumerian journals would be on clay tablets, Egyptian ones on papyrus, and Hebrew ones on parchment. The samples below are student created, nineteenth-century American journals.

picture of journal picture of journal
picture of journal picture of journal

2. Does the content accurately reflect the history of the time period?
Since I like to begin at the easiest level, and to slowly increase the degree of rigor required, this rubric is designed for beginning a project, with an emphasis on completion of tasks. Later assessments will include more rigorous standards.

An easy way to add rigor to the assessment is by creating a point structure for the items on the rubric, emphasizing the qualities on which you want students to focus.

Below is a sample checklist for the first week of the nineteenth-century journal project.

Design and Architecture Senior High
Second Quarter U.S. History
Journal Project
Week 1

Sample Assessment

Name: ___________________________________ Class: __________

_____ First journal entry: November 8, 1789
Birth date
Family history
Response to the events in the nation (new constitution, new president…)
Richness & accuracy of historical details
_____ Second journal entry: November 1800
(possible) Continued family history
Response to the events in the nation (election of Jefferson…)
Map of U.S. 1800
Richness and accuracy of historical details
_____ Third journal entry: April 1803
Continued family history
Response to the events of the nation (purchase of Louisiana territory)
Map of U.S. 1803
Richness and accuracy of historical details

A second way to add rigor to the assessments is to treat the journals as primary sources and ask students to draw historical inferences from the journals.

Sample Assessment

picture of journal

United States History
Nineteenth-Century Journals

Name: ___________________________________ Class: __________

You are historians who have found three journals from the first half of the nineteenth century. Read each journal carefully. Confer as you answer the following questions, using only the evidence found in the journals, and what you already know about the period.

  1. Briefly describe each person who left a journal. Include name, place of origin, occupation, age when the journal began, ethnicity, and gender. Include any other important personal information.
  2. Create an analysis chart of how each person reacted to the events of his/her time.
    Character's Name

    Character's Name

    Character's Name

  3. Use these three documents as a basis to construct the history of the United States during the early nineteenth-century. List three of your hypotheses about the problems facing people during this time period.
  4. List three of the most important or interesting questions these documents raise.

From the dates of the journals we know that all the "authors" of the journals are long dead. So there is no one to ask: "What did you mean by…?"

In this assessment activity, the student historians must establish the credibility of the "original" documents and account for the oddities of information or perception. To do this, students are invited to apply their knowledge of the period as they draw inferences about life in the nineteenth-century.

The final segment of this lesson is the display of the journals in the school gallery, where students are expected to share their research, insights, and conclusions with gallery visitors.


Remember the questions that I posed earlier—what do we want our assessments to tell us?

  • Do I know my stuff?
  • Am I doing a good job?
  • What should I do next?
  • Will the world think I am wonderful and let me… (move to the next grade, go to college, get a job?…)
  • Am I done yet?

To answer these concerns, we began by looking at the desired end result of instruction.

We asked ourselves:

  • What does mastery look like?
  • What does someone who is a master of this material or skill do?
  • How will we know that we have accomplished our objectives?

There are many ways to answer these questions. The possibilities are endless, and as exciting as the human mind itself.


What stops us from using appropriate, authentic assessments more frequently? They are clearly more exciting. Nonetheless, most of us use far more paper and pencil measures than we should because they are:

  1. Less subjective
  2. Easier to grade
  3. Often less time-consuming
  4. Familiar

We are accustomed to talking about covering chapters and giving quizzes and unit tests.

The new assessments ask us to identify what we want students to know or be able to do. Authentic assessment asks us to consider the diverse ways students may demonstrate that knowledge to us. It requires that we align curriculum, instruction, and assessment. It means we have to acquire some new skills, find time to plan, and venture into interdisciplinary territory.

At first, it can feel overwhelming, since it requires a deeper grasp of our subject matter, a new grading system, and invites collaborative work, as we integrate writing and speaking, reading and painting, conversation and demonstration. What a challenge for many of us with 120–150 kids whom we teach within a traditional high school setting!

Under these circumstances, it is best to start slowly, and to add a few new assessment tools each quarter. Find a colleague or two to work with. There are many natural "bedfellows:" art and history; journalism and history; woodshop and history. Look for compatible folks with whom you feel a spark of creative fire. Very likely, very quickly, you will get "hooked" by the energy, learning, and fun released into your classroom!


When I successfully match appropriate assessment to classroom instruction, I have found that pronounced changes in the classroom climate occur. These changes are our rewards for learning to use new forms of assessment!

Expect to find that:

  1. Students and teachers have more fun.
  2. There is more laughter in the classroom, and more effort.
  3. Tests of skill, regardless of their formats, are seen as a challenge.
  4. There is more learning in the classroom and more creativity.
  5. Students devise ingenious ways to show what they know.
  6. Students are less reluctant to correct their errors.
  7. Students are more willing to acquire knowledge and skills that they are lacking.

Learning and teaching doesn't get much better! Enjoy!