12 Alternatives to Tests

By Karen on January 4, 2017
Posted to Teaching and Learning

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For a long time, I have worried about the disparity I see between learning and assessment in many classrooms. Students may well have had diverse learning experiences (or not) - teacher directed or student led - but at the end of it all, a pen and paper assessment is used to ‘test’ how well students have achieved the outcomes.

Why does this bother me?

  • Our reliance on written assessments may not be testing students’ knowledge but rather their writing skills and ability to express their learning in this way. It’s no surprise that kids with poor literacy skills don’t do well in these kinds of assessments. How else can they demonstrate their learning without being hampered by their lower literacy skills?
  • Related to this concern, is what the process of being assessed in a written format does to students who struggle to write. Does such a student come to believe they are not a learner, rather than that written formats aren’t their strength? What impact will this have on learning dispositions?
  • Not all outcomes (in fact very few in the Australian Curriculum) require long term knowledge retention. More often than not, the outcomes require some synthesis of the knowledge acquired/used in the learning process or development of skills and dispositions. There are much better ways to test such outcomes. You could ask yourself what you remember from your time at school … how useful was all that knowledge retained and reproduced in tests?
  • In the 21st Century, we are all carrying around massive knowledge banks in our pockets. Any internet enabled device can pull up a fact if we need it. I regularly ‘Hey Siri …’ my iPhone to ask about something I want to know. Privileging the ability to blurt back factual/knowledge is not necessarily ideal. Do we know if the newly learned information is ‘sticky’? Will students remember it in a week, a month, next year when their new teacher assesses them, when they are working on a challenge in another topic/learning area?
  • Are we really just assessing those with the will or motivation to put in the effort to commit the new information to memory?
  • Ultimately we should make the assessment process part of the learning. We should strive to make assessment a learning experience. This is what Dylan Wiliam calls “assessment AS learning”.

This blog post is a partner list to ‘21 ways to Construct Knowledge’ and offers 12 alternatives to ‘tests’:

  1. Why not replace the usual classroom Morning Talks/Show and Tell with a much more powerful: Learning Show and Tell - Time is a premium learning asset, and practicing oral language by telling the class about something that happened at home or a new toy, is not necessarily a useful idea. Talking about something new that was learned on the other hand, is a much better use of time. These talks could be one-to-class or in groups, videoed or recorded or not, self and peer assessed and related to the current class work or about the process of learning in any context (class learning, home learning, life learning). The speaker practices their oral language skills, has a chance to share thinking and learning and the listeners benefit from the process, especially if they are peer assessing for criteria like: demonstration of problem solving or thinking processes, clarity of argument, synthesis of ideas into succinct summaries, originality …
  2. Make a movie - There are dozens of ways to be creative about the way students share their learning and insights using video. Some examples include: TV or radio advertisements; an imperative to market ideas or advocate for a position; create a TV or radio news bulletin; or create a manual. Why not celebrate the learning with an end of inquiry/unit viewing session? Add popcorn and engage students in peer assessment. Viewing 30 individual or 6-8 group unique presentations are terrific reinforcement of the key ideas, processes and the importance of creativity.
  3. Reflection - As I wrote in a recent blog post on reflection, our 7th most popular in 2016: Quality reflection occurs when rich learning tasks lead to rich learning. Learning something new, for a real purpose, is fertile territory for reflection.
  4. Self/peer assessment are important steps in the assessment process. In our 2016 most read blog post (10.5k educators read it in a year) you’ll find suggestions for self and peer assessment. Assessment Ninja offers LOTS of help here, with ways to start and further develop your assessment expertise. One of our main foci is student choice/voice/agency - so having students co-construct the assessment criteria with you, is a great pathway to assessment AS learning.
  5. ePortfolios / Blogs - Having students take more responsibility for the assessment process is another major driver for improving learning outcomes. Read our blog post on students evidencing their own learning to find a range of recommended processes and digital tools to help you with this crucial transfer of responsibility.
  6. Many skills require repeated practice, like learning times tables, and there are many terrific digital games and tools to support this learning. Consider use the levels in these literacy and numeracy games as progress markers, rather than a separate ‘test’.
  7. Presentations of learning - Once your students understand the options, there are many opportunities to be creative about how learning is presented. Purpose driven (rather than ‘bells and whistles’) is important. I can still clearly remember a Year 7 teacher who loved bright red and green borders on projects. One I had that colouring skill mastered, I had a guaranteed ‘A’ for my work, no matter what I wrote about. So … Purpose! Let’s get beyond the presentation to matching presentation to the message to be conveyed. How might these messages best be represented? Get creative and move beyond a powerpoint. There are many digital options, like those we shared in our post on digital tools in numeracy Digital or analogue presentations can be extended to include brochures, comic strips, letters, eBooks, making a game or producing posters, depending on the purpose.
  8. Public Exhibitions - I firmly believe students are sure to ‘step up to the plate’ when there is a real audience for their work. The British International School in Phuket Year 6 students finished off a history unit on Phuket with a mock World Heritage Listing Bid for the island. Students were highly invested, committed and well prepared to ‘sell’ the island. A key of course is an audience. Inviting parents, if nothing else, its a great PR exercise. Other staff, other classes …there are plenty of potential visitors. I’d suggest that your students work on a way to support the visitors to successfully engage with the exhibition. Prepare some ‘suggested questions’ or a scaffold for engagement with the exhibition. Art Exhibitions usually have a catalogue. Arriving at the Phuket World Heritage bid, visitors received a grid for comments against each area (History, Architecture, Culture …) and a rating for how well the presentations ‘sold’ the idea that Phuket deserved world heritage listing.
  9. Another option to consider, is tracking learning progress / gains over time, rather than focusing so determinedly on summative assessments. I think we all find it hard to answer the question: Will they remember this in 6 months? In his 2015 TEDx Talk Will Richardson talks about his son’s diligence in using a periodic table homework worksheet as a basis for memorising the required elements for a school test. Richardson asks, ‘Will he remember them in a week? In a month? In 6 months?’ Possibly not. I know I memorised the elements in high school, but have very little knowledge of them now. I don’t use them nor refresh my memory regularly. On the other hand, if we do re-access information, apply it in new ways and celebrate our increasing proficiency with new information, we are more likely to utilise long term memory.
  10. Models - Every class I’ve ever worked with loved shoebox dioramas as a way of presenting their learning. This was a huge challenge in Thailand, because shoes were sold without a box LOL. There are lots of hands on activities one can do to support the reporting of learning key concepts and ideas with models. Fun too! Remember a digital image makes a great blog post, portfolio entry or display board item.
  11. Demonstrate the learning using a different skill set - We can be so caught up in a narrow range of test/assessment processes, we forget the possibilities created by thinking outside our own field. For example: presenting scientific insights as poetry, collaging key history messages … the possibilities are endless, and we have an opportunity to consolidate a skill in a new context if such opportunities are opened to students.
  12. Use Social Media - I have loved working with Fakebook. Students have created Facebook type profiles of historical and eminent figures to share their learning. Mike Oberdick’s step-by-step Fakebook guide will help you, or better still, students (an ‘expert support team’ or all of them) to understand how this works. Another idea is: using Pinterest Boards (closed/secret if cybersafety is an issue) - in response to inquiry questions, with comments and tags.

I remember being horrified by my son’s year 6 teacher when she failed him on his Fractions Test, but told me, ‘Oh, it's okay that he failed Maths this term, I know he understands fractions. He can convert fractions like a quarter is two eighths and is really good at calculating fractions of quantities. Some of the big point losses were only for mis-calculations in the problems.’ Mmmmm I think, but he’s 'failed Maths'. No wonder he lost confidence!

If all else fails, and you are going to use a ‘test’ as your summative assessment, remember the power of having students make up their own test questions. They can try them out on each other, and the best be selected as the assessment used.

What makes this creative approach to assessment more powerful?

As with the closing comment about having students write the test questions, creating the options WITH your students, letting them choose the best approach for the learning they are presenting, and handing responsibility to students will ensure maximum engagement and motivation.

Why not assess the assessment process? Co-create Success Criteria for effective learning presentations WITH your students, remembering to add ‘selecting a presentation mode that matches the purpose of the presentation’.

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