Alternative Assessment Research Paper Starter

Alternative Assessment

(Research Starters)

This article presents information on alternative assessment methods used in the evaluation of student learning. Alternative assessment is a type of assessment that differs from standard assessment techniques and traditional modes of assessment. It seeks to make learning more significant and to provide a stronger link between instruction and assessment. Types of alternative assessment include authentic assessment, performance assessment, portfolio assessment, exhibitions, demonstrations and student self-assessment. The article also presents an extensive list of alternative-assessment measures that serve as options for implementation in the classroom.



Testing & Evaluation > Alternative Assessment


Alternative assessment is a widely used term that denotes any and all alternatives to standard assessment techniques and traditional modes of assessment, which instead use non-standardized and nontraditional ways of assessment. Alternative assessment approaches are used to assess the knowledge and skills of students that are not well captured by traditional assessment methods. Alternative assessment is based on a philosophy and a goal that differ from those of traditional assessments. Alternative assessment is a practice that is often affiliated with educational reform, which is at its root a quest for alternatives (Donovan, Larson, Stechschulte, & Taft, 2002; McMillan, 2001; National Research Council, 2001; Settlage, 2004; Smith, Smith, & DeLisi, 2001).

Roots in Constructivism

Alternative assessment is supported by the philosophy of constructivism, which emphasizes the importance of students constructing and supplying responses rather than selecting or choosing them. Great interest in alternative assessment in the U.S. grew during the 1990s and its popularity has continued unabated into the present day. A primary purpose of alternative assessment is to promote learning--not only to verify learning. As such, alternative assessment is both formative and diagnostic. Alternative assessment places increased emphasis on the development and implementation of meaningfully contextualized instruction and assessment. Alternative assessment grading and scoring is more informative, because it includes the specific criteria used in the evaluations.

Alternative assessment tasks more closely resemble real-world learning tasks and they encompass both individual and group activities. They are open-ended tasks that require students to solve a problem, create a product, or to generally apply the knowledge and skills they have learned. Alternative assessments may include student work products, hands-on activities, observations, limited or extended written responses, drawings, diagrams, graphs, charts, lists, and webs (National Research Council, 2001; Weldin & Tumarkin, 1997).

Alternative assessment and constructivist philosophy recognize that effective education involves more than mastery of content; it also involves students' development of thinking and reasoning skills. The learning, knowledge, skills, and abilities demonstrated by students during alternative assessment is based on the use of specific criteria. The criteria and instructional objectives used to evaluate students' performances are made clear and explicit beforehand (McMillan, 2001; National Research Council, 2001).

Advantages over Traditional Assessment

Alternative assessment seeks to make learning more significant and to provide a stronger link between, and foster greater integration of, instruction and assessment, emphasizing ongoing classroom assessments that are an integral part of teaching practice. It generally involves assessment situations that enable the collection of more extensive evidence of student performance, as it is based on multiple measures taken over time to yield a more complete picture of student achievement. Alternative assessment provides more in-depth descriptive information about more complex activities occurring over longer periods of time than traditional assessment methods (McMillan, 2001; National Research Council, 2001; Weldin & Tumarkin, 1997).

McMillan (2001) identifies six major types or subtypes of alternative assessment:

* Authentic assessment

* Performance assessment

* Portfolio assessment

* Exhibitions

* Demonstrations

* Student self-assessment

Assessment Reform

Assessment reform has been on the educational agenda in the U.S. since the 1990s. A type of "mini-revolution" occurred in assessment during the 1990s, and alternative assessment, a relatively new form of assessment, was very popular. A lot of new names entered the assessment lexicon, including alternative assessment and its related types or subtypes:

* Authentic assessment

* Performance assessment

* Portfolio assessment

A plethora of new publications came out relating to this historic reconceptualization of assessment (Buhagiar, 2007; Herman, 1997; Smith et al., 2001).

Assessments have historically been used to differentiate and rank students by achievement. Due to standardized testing regulations, the nature of educational assessment has been changing. Nevertheless, alternative assessments are still being used. Research and development efforts to design better alternative assessment approaches for measuring individual students' knowledge and skills have been underway (McMillan, 2001; National Research Council, 2001; Stiggins, 2007). Buhagiar (2007), for example, wrote about one innovation, an alternative paradigm--"assessment for learning"--which he proposes as a means to embody all forms of assessment taking place within the confines of the classroom and to more fully integrate teaching, learning, and assessment.


The type of assessment used in evaluating student achievement needs to be matched with its purpose. The assessment option that provides the best evidence should be the one that is implemented (McMillan, 2001). A primary purpose of alternative assessment is for actual learning, as opposed to the verification of learning. Alternative assessment provides formative assessment of student learning. It focuses on both students' finished work and their progress. Teachers are able to share information with students, provide descriptive feedback, and discuss goals so as to improve performance (Johnsen, 1996; Stiggins, 2007). Traditional assessments are not suitable for dynamic learning environments and may not provide reliable evidence for diagnostic purposes. Alternative assessment, however, provides direction for future work and instruction (Johnsen, 1996; Kalyuga, 2006).

Alternative assessment engages students actively in the learning process, enhances student learning, and improves instruction by providing ways of applying knowledge, thinking critically, solving complex problems, or creating a product. Alternative assessment makes it possible not only to sample all that has been learned in a specific area but also to address students' potential, motivation, and confidence (Haladyna, 1997; Johnsen, 1996; Stiggins, 2007). The general purposes of alternative assessment are to motivate students to do their best work, build students' self-confidence and self-concept, show improvement in students' work over time, and show students' best work in a specific area (Johnsen, 1996; Monson & Monson, 1993).


Alternative assessment supports the development and implementation of contextualized instruction and assessment. Specific instructional and assessment contexts can be set up in complex interdisciplinary learning settings. Alternative assessment reflects assessment that is "authentic," a term coined by Wiggins (1993). Student performance needs to model realistic encounters in life.

All teaching, learning, and assessment should be done in contexts that are relevant and meaningful to the learner, so alternative assessment allows for a high degree of contextualization to the individual student. Tasks are "framed" in the context of an actual student project, involve application, and are connected to his or her personal educational experience (National Research Council, 2001; Tal, Dori, & Lazarowitz, 2000; Wiggins, 1993). The contexts of alternative assessment should be interesting to students, appropriate for the level, and readily available (Haladyna, 1997; Kumar & Bristor, 1999; Watt, 2005).


Alternative assessments are constructed response or supply-type measurements. With all types of alternative assessment, students must actually construct a response--not select or choose a response. Examples of constructed responses are giving a speech, carrying out a project, and completing short-answer items. Constructed response assessments are often referred to as "subjective" tests. However, although some constructed responses, like essays, are judged subjectively, others, such as sentence completion items with only a single correct answer, may be scored objectively (McMillan, 2001).

Assessment Types

There is much overlap of designation regarding the various types of alternative assessment. The types interrelate such that the same assessment type can be referred to in a variety of ways. For example, at least two types of alternative assessment--exhibitions and demonstrations--are also performance assessments. A project (an assessment measure or tool) can be part of a performance assessment, an authentic assessment, or a portfolio assessment (McMillan, 2001). Smith, Smith, and DeLisi (2001) argue that the term "performance assessment" seems to be winning out over the use of "alternative assessment" or "authentic assessment." Table 1 presents a detailed list of the descriptors, contexts, types, and measures of alternative assessment that will be discussed in this article.

Performance Assessment

Performance assessment involves the completion of a product that can be evaluated. A performance assessment might also be a demonstration of students' knowledge, skills, and abilities. It does not necessarily imply observing a student performance, but typically students actually create, develop, produce, or perform a task in response to a prompt in order to demonstrate a skill or proficiency (McMillan, 2001). In a performance assessment, "students have actually done whatever it is that you want them to be able to do" (Smith, Smith, & DeLisi, 2001, p. 46).

Table 1: Descriptors, Contexts, Types,

Characteristic Examples descriptors accurate, active, appropriate, authentic, collaborative, constructive, criterion-referenced, direct, dynamic, effective, fair, flexible, formative, holistic, innovative, multidimensional, natural, new-generation, performance-based, positive, process-oriented, real-world, state-of-the-art, synergistic, valid, viable contexts adapted, authentic-learning, classroom-embedded, complex, constructive, everyday-setting, interdisciplinary, interesting, level-appropriate, personally meaningful, positive, readily-available, realistic, real-life, real-world, relevant, specific, student-centered, useful types authentic assessment, demonstrations, exhibitions, observational assessment (some), oral assessment (some), peer assessment, performance assessment, portfolio assessment, student self-assessment/self-reflection measures anecdotal records, audio/video recordings, building/ constructing models, case studies, checklists, concept maps, debates, debriefings of students, exhibitions, extended-response exercises, extended tasks, graphic organizers, identification tests, interviews, inventories,...

(The entire section is 5182 words.)