Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Critical Issues That Will Determine the Future of Alternative Assessment

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Critical Issues That Will Determine the Future of Alternative Assessment

Article excerpt

Many practitioners are unsure whether to venture into the torrents of unfamiliar assessment strategies or to drift quietly in education's backwaters, waiting to see if this movement crests and ebbs as quickly as have dozens of others, Mr. Worthen observes.

Few current movements have caught the attention of educators as quickly as the move toward more direct assessment of student performance. Efforts to develop useful alternatives to standardized testing have proliferated during the past several years.[1] Major journals that serve educational practitioners have devoted large sections or entire issues to thoughtful analyses of assessment alternatives. (Interested readers should consult the April 1989 and May 1992 issues of Educational Leadership and the May 1989 and May 1991 issues of the Kappan.) State and national associations of professional educators - including the Florida Educational Research Association, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), and the Education Commission of the States - have sponsored symposia or special conferences to consider alternative ways to assess student performance. And, not to be left behind, state legislatures have begun to enact laws that mandate the use of direct assessment of student performance as the means of determining how well schools, districts, and state education systems are performing.(2) In short, alternative assessment's rising tide has overflowed most of education's shoreline, and the schools are increasingly being flooded with calls for more direct assessment of student performance.

Despite the surge of interest in alternative assessment, concerns from supporters who fear that such assessments are often launched without adequate thought and criticisms from those who favor more traditional means of assessment have combined to create a strong undertow. Differences between proponents and opponents have sparked vigorous debates that have created confusing crosscurrents, leaving many educators feeling rudderless as they attempt to chart the course of their schools' assessment programs.[3] Many practitioners are unsure whether to venture into the torrents of unfamiliar assessment strategies or to drift quietly in education's backwaters, waiting to see if this movement crests and ebbs as quickly as have dozens of others.

In this article, I propose to 1) describe briefly how alternative assessment differs from more traditional forms, 2) outline the forces that have caused the recent upsurge of interest in alternative assessment, and 3) identify some major issues that educators must resolve if alternative assessment is to reach its full potential in our schools.

A DEFINITION OF

ALTERNATIVE ASSESSMENT

Several labels have been used to describe alternatives to standardized tests. The most common include "direct assessment," "authentic assessment," "performance assessment," and the more generic "alternative assessment," which I shall use here.(4) Although these descriptors reflect subtle distinctions in emphasis, the several types of assessment all exhibit two central features: first, all are viewed as alternatives to traditional multiple-choice, standardized achievement tests; second, all refer to direct examination of student performance on significant tasks that are relevant to life outside of school.

Proponents of alternative assessment prefer it to more traditional assessment that relies on indirect, "proxy" tasks (usually test items). Sampling tiny snippets of student behavior, they point out, does not provide insight into how students would perform on truly "worthy" intellectual tasks. Conversely, they argue that student learning can be better assessed by examining and judging a student's actual (or simulated) performance on significant, relevant tasks. As Jay McTighe and Steven Ferrara note, such assessment can focus on students' processes (revealed through learning logs, "think-aloud" observation sessions, self-assessment checklists); products (e. …

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