Issues facing alternative assessment

Diverse Elementary ClassAs the demand by the public for school accountability has increased in recent years, the results of standardized tests have assumed greater visibility and importance. In response to this trend, however, educators have become increasingly concerned with the way states and districts use standardized tests to hold educators accountable for student achievement. Although intended to raise educational standards and increase student performance, such high-stakes testing has caused curricula to become more narrowly focused. As schools focus on teaching to these tests, students scores go up, but large gaps in knowledge become apparent.

Alarmed by this trend, some educators have advocated alternative forms of assessment that would test student performance on tasks considered significant to the curriculum as well as to life outside of school. This kind of assessment has long been the core method of evaluating student learning in certain content areas such as athletics, music, art, etc. According to Blaine R. Worthen, Utah State University/Logan, however, there are still major issues that advocates need to resolve if alternate assessment is to be fully effective across large populations of students and across curricula. Although Worthen believes alternative assessments have a role to play in improving education, he believes that most criticisms of standardized tests are due to the manner in which these tests have been misused.

Worthen writes that alternative assessment has the potential to expand and enrich the nature of the information testing provides. He believes that direct measurement of performance on important tasks should be the main thrust of all testing within the classroom and, whenever feasible, should be used in place of the indirect samples of performance represented by standardized achievement tests.

Critical issues

However, Worthen points out that several critical issues currently face the use of alternative assessment outside individual classrooms. His first concern is over the clarity and coherence of the concepts and language surrounding alternative assessment. He believes it is crucial for alternative assessment advocates to reach agreement on concepts and on a single term to refer to each concept. In addition, he writes that new alternative-assessment techniques must be able to stand up to the same intense scrutiny as traditional tests. Issues of efficiency, equity and evidence must be addressed squarely, and Worthen recommends establishing a forum for self-criticism that would involve large numbers of well-informed educators.

These time-consuming processes must be developed, tested and evaluated in a wide variety of schools and grade levels. This means that teachers must be able to administer high-quality alternative assessments, which are much more dependent than traditional assessments on how well teachers are prepared. Worthen stresses that long-term teacher training must accompany the development of effective alternative assessments.

Worthen believes that the demand by the public for accountability is increasing, and test scores are still the most widely accepted evidence. Alternative assessments must be acceptable to teachers, parents, students, legislators, school boards and professional educational organizations, each of whom must be convinced that nontraditional assessment can provide them with accurate, meaningful information. Currently, alternative methods of testing can describe student performance in ways that are meaningful to teachers, students and parents. The problem is summarizing the results of alternative assessments for large numbers of students in an efficient manner for use by administrators, policy makers and legislators.

Worthen caution that enthusiasm for alternative assessments can raise expectations to unrealistic levels and ultimately lead to disappointment and the withdrawal of support. Some leading proponents say that it will be a decade before new forms of assessment have been sufficiently developed and tested to allow widespread use of them for educational decisions.

Worthen points out that alternative assessments may be as susceptible as traditional tests to the corrupting effects of tying high-stakes decisions to their results. He writes that there are three unknowns about alternative assessments that raise questions about their usefulness in high-stakes settings: (1) Will they be able to provide sufficient standardization to defend decisions? (2) Will ethnic populations score better or worse on alternative assessments? and (3) Will legal challenges to educational decisions be more difficult to defend because the validity of such tests may be less apparent?


Worthen recommends that alternative assessments be developed and tested initially in low-stakes settings, such as individual classrooms. He believes that as our knowledge and skill in alternative assessment increase, and as evidence mounts that these techniques can be used to improve instruction and stimulate reform, an environment will be created to further develop their potential. The considerable cost of alternative assessment will then need to be considered in light of the benefits it is able to provide. The feasibility of its use beyond the classroom may depend upon testing samples of students rather than testing whole grade levels across the country. This would be acceptable only if the sample of students selected were truly representative and the assessment accuracy reflected a student’s true achievement.

Finally, Worthen doubts whether a single method of assessment can or should be used to satisfy all instructional and accountability purposes. But, if alternative assessement is to be widely used, strategies must be developed that will link assessment for accountability more effectively to assessment for individual diagnosis and prescription. The use of technology to make alternative assessments less labor-intensive and, therefore, less costly, Worthen adds, is an important issue that will affect the future of alternative assessment. Worthen recommends taking advantage of the expertise of reputable testing firms without giving them responsibility for developing local measures.

Lastly, he believes that if these issues are resolved, alternative assessment will be able to provide new and important kinds of information about student ability that will contribute to educational improvement.

“Critical Issues That Will Determine the Future of Alternative Assessment”, Phi Delta Kappan, February 1993, pp. 444-454.

Published in ERN March/April 1993, Volume 6, Number 2.

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