States Explore Alternatives to Standardized Testing

Published May 1, 2013

Online schools, mobile technology, and independent students are beginning to bring promising innovations to the heart of modern education: Standardized testing.

There is growing restlessness about standardized testing and teaching methods. Texas, for instance, is currently debating reducing high school end-of-course exams from 15 to five. Innovators are looking into other ways to measure learning. Parents across the country are opting their children out of testing altogether, some even resorting to proclaiming the tests violate their religion. In Pennsylvania, parents can use broad religious and ethical waivers to excuse their children from participation.

“Uniform measures create a powerful incentive to move toward uniform behavior,” said Jason Bedrick, an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute, in an email to School Reform News. “No one test or system of measurement can fully capture what a student has learned or can accomplish, which is why having multiple measurements is wise.”

Portable Portfolios
The ideas that could take the place of testing in the future could appear soon in schools. The most notable is the portfolio concept. Using portfolios to measure students’ work and knowledge has been tossed around for years, and it has been condemned as a “squishy,” non-objective form of measurement. But now the widely available interactive mobile internet makes the idea more realistic.

One example is Knowit, a website and app that shares students’ work. They call it an “e-portfolio.” It lets students upload and display everything they’ve made—papers, videos, websites, recordings, etc.

Digital Badges
Another innovation is called digital badges. These are similar to badges Boy Scouts earn for mastering a skill.

“Badges are an alternative form of credentialing—it is to show you mastered something. It doesn’t call for a different type of assessment. It is more to replace the demand for higher education and add more career tech for high school,” explained testing researcher Richard Phelps, founder of the Nonpartisan Education Review. “I was a Boy Scout and got lots of badges. Since you are choosing what to study, it is the opposite of how you learn in school.”

These badges can credential small units of knowledge such as two-digit addition, or larger chunks such as Algebra 1.

“My prediction for the future is that students will have more opportunities to show what they know with badges like Modzilla Open Badges, BadgeStack, Uboost, and products like Knowit,” said Lisa Nielsen, a popular blogger at The Innovative Educator and author of Teaching Generation Text.

Digital badges are especially appropriate for hands-on or skills-based learning, which is beginning to proliferate outside traditional education. Felicia Sullivan, a senior researcher with the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement and author of New Alternative Assessments, Digital Badges and Civics, describes them as “new models for learning that can demonstrate competency without a formal or standardized test.”

Badges can apply to all ages, and to both informal and formal education. An example is Code Academy , a website where visitors can earn points toward a badge in computer coding. The granddaddy of online badges is sponsored by the Mozilla Foundation, the open-source internet network.

Open Debate
Such innovations could help resolve the decades-old debate over testing, Bedrick says.

“Different students respond differently to various types of testing or measurement,” he explained. “These realities should induce us to resist any effort to impose standardized testing, which would impede innovative efforts to measure student performance.”

Lawmakers in both parties tend to argue a uniform system of measurement, such as testing, is needed to provide public accountability for the billions of dollars taxpayers spend on education. Sullivan thinks both accountability and diversity are possible.

“The important thing is for the learning outcome to be defined and to be clear about what indicates accomplishment of that outcome,” says Sullivan. “In this way badges and technology-enabled learning may complement or replace existing methods and assessments. But any learning, assessment, and credentialing regime needs to be proven to be effective.”


Learn more:
New Alternative Assessments, Digital Badges and Civics,” Felicia Sullivan, Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, March 2013:

Image by Aleksi Aaltonen.