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Throughout the academic year, you’ll need to assess your students at regular intervals. While most schools have end of year assessments, teachers routinely use regular assessments to determine whether learning objectives have been met.

Traditionally, assessments were given in one format. In most cases, students were presented with a written examination and asked to complete it within a set amount of time. While these types of assessments can still be useful in some situations, they are somewhat limited.

By using a range of different teaching assessments, you can get a better understanding of what your students have learned. While a written Q&A might tell you what a student has remembered, alternative assessment enables you to assess what they’ve learned.

It is often said that alternative assessment shows you what a student can or cannot do, not what they do or do not know. Based on this alternative assessment definition, it’s easy to see why teachers and students benefit from a more comprehensive and varied approach to assessments.

What is alternative assessment?

Sometimes known as authentic assessments, an alternative assessment is designed to give you more insight into a student’s performance, achievements and learning objectives. Critically, alternative assessment can also highlight areas in which a student may be struggling.

When teachers use alternative assessments, students are able to:
  • Carry out or perform a task
  • Showcase their abilities
  • Receive meaningful feedback

Essentially, alternative assessment enables you to assess a student’s skill or proficiency when completing a task. Traditional assessments are more focused on testing knowledge and memory skills, whereas alternative teaching assessments evaluate performance, proficiency, and skill-sets.

What are the different types of alternative assessment?

Authentic or alternative assessments can take many forms.

Common examples of authentic assessment include:
  • Student portfolios
  • Open book exams
  • Collaborative testing
  • Take-home assignments
  • Demonstrations
  • Oral presentations
  • Retake options
  • Performance tests

When compared to a more standard form of assessment, it is easy to see how much more information can be gleaned for authentic assessments. As the alternative assessment examples show, teachers are able to evaluate students more accurately via authentic assessments.

By allowing students to undertake an open book exam, for example, you can assess their ability to interpret text, find relevant passages to support their arguments, research information, critically analyze it and present their findings in a logical and persuasive manner.

In contrast, a standard closed book exam would require a student to remember the text before they are able to carry out these functions. While students may have outstanding critical analysis skills, a poor memory could make it impossible for them to complete the assessment adequately.

In real-life settings, we are rarely required to remember reams of information, so why should we expect students to do the same? Instead of spending their time learning to recite passages of Romeo and Juliet in English class, is it not more beneficial for students to spend time interpreting, analyzing and evaluating the text itself?

By using performance-based assessment, teachers can measure a student’s skills in relation to learning aims and outcomes. This ensures they are assessed on their abilities, rather than their knowledge. While memorizing a syllabus is certainly impressive, it doesn’t equate to developing transferable skills.

With alternative assessments, teachers can be sure that their students have grasped key concepts and have the skills to apply these concepts in a variety of different settings.

What are the benefits of performance based assessments?

As highlighted above, authentic assessments give teachers a more comprehensive view of their students’ abilities. However, there are numerous other benefits associated with alternative or performance-based assessments. These include:

Assessing individual students based on their unique learning objectives

Even when classes are structured according to ability, each student will have individual strengths and weaknesses. As alternative assessments take a non-standardized approach, students can be assessed in accordance with their own learning objectives.

This is particularly beneficial when assessing students with learning issues or difficulties. A student with dyslexia may score low marks in a standardized test, for example, but perform extremely well in a performance-based assessment. By assessing students in different ways, their true abilities are highlighted.

Accommodates different learning styles

As a teacher, you’re already well aware of differing learning styles and preferences. It is common practice to include a variety of different learning opportunities in lessons so that all students can reach their potential. If we know that people learn in different ways, surely it makes sense to assess them in different ways too?

If a student is a kinesthetic learner, for example, they are likely to perform better when demonstrating their skills and talents. Similarly, auditory learners may excel when they are given the opportunity to present their work orally.

Restricting assessments to one, standardized style directly contradicts the way we teach. By incorporating different types of alternative assessment into your repertoire, you can ensure that students are assessed in a way that best reflects their learning style.

Can be used to assess progress over a long period of time

When authentic assessments are used, you have the opportunity to assess students on concepts and skills that were taught last week, last month or even last year. While end of year standardized tests attempt to do this, they place a considerable emphasis on what a student is able to remember, rather than what they can do.

In contrast, performance-based assessment allows you to take a broad overview of a student’s progress. Instead of simply finding out what information they have retained, you can determine whether particular concepts remain part of their knowledge and whether taught skills are still demonstrable.

While memory skills are, of course, important, a student’s increasing abilities are arguably much more important than their ability to remember facts. When you use performance-based teaching assessments, you can gain a better insight into how a student’s learning aims are developing in the long-term.

Overcomes communication difficulties

If students have issues with communication, it can make it difficult for them to showcase their abilities via standardized tests. If a student is learning English as a second language, for example, the language barrier might make it difficult for them to write their answers in a standard format.

When you use alternative assessment, however, these barriers are eliminated. If students struggle with written communication, oral presentations can be used instead. Alternatively, if students find it difficult to speak in public, portfolios or web-based graphics can be used too as a form of authentic assessment.

Combining objective assessment criteria with authentic assessments

Although performance-based assessments don’t generally rely on quantitative data in the same way that standardized tests do, objectivity is still critical. To ensure students are assessed fairly, objective criteria must be devised and used to grade students.

As you’ll be the person devising authentic assessments for your students, based on what they’ve been taught, you’ll be required to implement objective assessment criteria too. It is particularly important that objective criteria is used when grading performance-based assessments. Furthermore, this criteria should be made available to students and their parents, guardians or caregivers.

By sharing the assessment criteria, you’re telling students how their performance is being evaluated. Essentially, this gives them the information they need to prepare in advance and hone their skills as much as they can. In addition to this, being transparent with the grading criteria ensures fairness and clarity.

However, you aren’t completely on your own. There are plenty of alternative assessment examples and sample assessment criteria available online. These can give you a great starting point when it comes to grading students via authentic assessments.

While authentic assessments may seem like more work than simply handing round a multiple-choice test, they are far more rewarding. The majority of teachers and students prefer alternative assessments because it allows for a more genuine, accurate and realistic evaluation of performance and achievement.