Pass or Fail: Alternative Assessment Measures

In this multi-part series, I provide a dissection of the phenomenon of retention and social promotion. Also, I describe the many different methods that would improve student instruction in classrooms and eliminate the need for retention and social promotion if combined effectively.

While reading this series, periodically ask yourself this question: Why are educators, parents and the American public complicit in a practice that does demonstrable harm to children and the competitive future of the country?

If we know that students who are retained based on assessment scores continue to perform poorly in school, statistically speaking, then what can we do to turn the tide?

With standardized testing occupying such a prominent position on the educational landscape of the United States, it is not easy to specify a viable alternative. What alternatives to tests are available and, more to the point, which alternatives might be made to serve to eliminate test-based retention policies in education?

One of the first and most obvious alternatives to test-based assessments, specifically for retention policies, is a teacher-based assessment. Because of their intimate connection with students, teachers have a real potential to intervene and change the system. Indeed, teacher-based assessments ought to be readily manageable and academically viable.

Administrators could supply teachers with criteria for assessment and give guidance on how to apply those criteria in assessing student knowledge and skill. Hypothetically, this kind of system would represent only a relatively minor alteration of the existing education system, although problems may arise in enacting it.

Because of the scrutiny of the consequences of test-based retention policies, some researchers have already chosen to focus on a relationship between teacher-initiated retention and poor educational outcome. Although there is often little distinction between retention decisions based on high-stakes tests and those based on teacher assessment, most studies have still associated teacher-initiated and test-based retention policies with differential educational outcomes.

Several factors come into play, however, if we are to seriously consider teacher-based assessments as an alternative to testing-based retention. There are important differences in selection criteria between the methods as well as differences in the interventions and available resources for retained students. These factors also tend to vary quite significantly across districts and states as a reflection of the established retention criteria, mandated interventions, and budget limitations.

One might, however, question whether there is a significant difference between retention based on grades on a test or grades meted out as the considered opinion of a teacher. It is clear that retention is an inevitable consequence of a graded school system, and retention is no more viable when triggered by teachers than by test scores.

Beyond high-stakes testing and teacher assessments, however, there are many alternative methods for assessing a student’s mastery of materials. Multiple-choice questions, which are what most standardized tests use, are also only one of the available testing formats. Tests themselves should be revised regarding their format to allow for a fairer and more accurate application regarding assessing knowledge and skills outlined in a curriculum.

These suggestions just scratch the surface of what is possible when it comes to alternatives to the testing that exists today – so why aren’t we doing more to explore these avenues?

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