What Is an Alternative Assessment?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Man with hands on his hips
Man with hands on his hips

An alternative assessment is an evaluation of a student using alternative means instead of standardized testing or traditional pencil and paper tests, where students respond to short form prompts, often with multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank answers. An instructor may opt to use alternative assessment exclusively, or could offer it as an option to students with disabilities or other issues that impair their abilities to take traditional tests. In districts where standardized testing is used as a performance metric, teachers may need to offer an alternative to students who cannot take such tests to provide a complete assessment of an entire class.

In an alternative assessment, instructors can use a number of different tools. The goal is to allow the student to demonstrate thorough knowledge of the topics covered in class. Students need to show that they also meet the educational guidelines for their age group, illustrating that the teacher has covered age-appropriate subjects. The alternative assessment shows that students are ready to progress to the next level because they have mastered the building blocks that will be used in more advanced classes.

One option is to pose a prompt and have students respond with essays, works of art, or a question-and-answer period with the instructor. In some cases an alternative assessment can involve a self-assessment, where the student meets with the teacher to discuss confidence levels with the classroom material. Students may also be asked to assemble a portfolio of their best work to show how much they learned. The instructor can review the portfolio to determine if the student learned the necessary material.

Alternative assessments can show that students not only learned material, but also learned how to apply it. They may be prompted to use the tools they acquire in classes like math and science in new applications, to demonstrate that they thoroughly understand the work and its implications. An alternative assessment can be a way to evaluate critical thinking and comprehension skills in a more in-depth format than offered by traditional testing. Students may select a multiple choice answer without fully understanding the content, while it can be more difficult to respond to a free-form prompt to demonstrate knowledge.

Policies on alternative assessment vary by region. One problem with this approach is that it does not result in standardized, easily generalized results. Students preparing to go to college or university may find that assessment scores are not as welcome as grades, for instance. Another issue can occur with government funding and support, which may be hooked to test scores, in which case the district may push students to take standardized tests and limit the number of alternative assessments to avoid running afoul of regulations and missing out on funding.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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