In New York, the annual state tests still mean the usual multiple-choice questions and short writing prompts — and that’s not likely to change soon.
State officials recently chose not to apply to join a federal “innovative testing” program, which would have triggered an overhaul of the math and English tests that students in grades 3 to 8 take each year. (They cited the cost and difficulty of rolling out the new tests on the tight timeline required by the program.)
Yet in a state where nearly one in five families choose to boycott the exams — which many say do a poor job measuring students’ learning — pressure remains on policymakers to come up with new and better tests. They appear to have some interest in moving in that direction: The state’s education policy-making body, the Board of Regents, has established a workgroup focused partly on testing, and the state education commissioner has expressed interest in alternative graduation exams and new types of science and social studies tests.
If New York does pursue “innovative” assessments, what might they look like?
To answer that, we found four real-world examples of alternative assessments — two used in New York City, and two from other states. While each has its drawbacks, they show that “testing” doesn’t have to mean shading in bubbles with a No. 2 pencil.
Example 1: Tasks used to evaluate teacher effectiveness (New York City)
Who takes them? Students in all grades, in subjects including math, English and the arts
What are they? Essays and short tasks
As part of New York City’s teacher evaluation system, schools can choose from a menu of assessments meant to measure how much teachers have helped their students learn. Among those “Measures of Student Learning” are tasks that require students to make an argument in a written essay by citing examples from texts they are provided.
Other kinds of “MOSL’s,” as they’re often called, go beyond essays. Teachers can administer “running records,” where they assess individual students’ English skills as they read a series of texts out loud. A visual-arts assessment asks students to draw a still-life picture.
What do they look like? A 12th-grade English test from several years ago asks students to answer the question, “Should individuals enlist in the military and fight for their country?” In order to make their case, students must read and cite a poem and a portion of President Woodrow Wilson’s address to Congress.
What are the drawbacks? They are similar to standardized tests
The city teachers union negotiated with the city to include these tests in teacher evaluations, yet many teachers and school leaders have complained that they take up too much class time. Others question whether the assessments fairly measure students’ ability in subjects like art.
“Art is subjective,” said Jake Jacobs, a middle-school art teacher at Bronx Park Middle School. “If somebody is drawing something, who’s to say whether that drawing is good or bad?”
Example 2: Projects required for graduation (New York City)
Who takes them? Students at 38 New York City high schools in the “Performance Standards Consortium”
What are they? Months-long projects
The consortium was established in the 1990s to bring together New York City educators seeking an alternative to traditional standardized tests. Today, schools in that group have state permission to substitute long-term projects for several of the Regents exams that students must pass in order to graduate. At those schools, each student must complete a literary essay, solve a complex math problem, design a science experiment, and complete a research paper in order to earn a diploma.
In their junior or senior years, they present their projects to a panel of judges, who evaluate whether the work meets the consortium’s requirements.
Sample questions: According to consortium materials, one student wrote a paper titled, “What Role Do Black Characters Play in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and Flannery O’Connor’s Short Stories?” Another produced a science experiment called, “How Does a Garter Snake Detect Its Prey?” Another wrote a research paper titled, “Who Or What Is Responsible for the End of Slavery in the United States?”
What are the drawbacks? Heavy workload for educators and students
Schools in the consortium must spend a lot of time training teachers to oversee students’ projects and ensuring that the work is held to the same standards across the consortium. For that reason, even Ann Cook, executive director and co-founder of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, says it would be difficulty to spread this model across the entire state.
“Could every kid in the state be doing this? I’d probably say no,” Cook said. “And the reason is that you have to have a faculty that is interested and wants to do it. They should want to opt into this because it takes a lot of work in the school.”
Example 3: Real-world problems (New Hampshire)
Who takes them? Students in grades K-12 in math, English, and science
What are they? Tasks based on real-world scenarios
New Hampshire students take traditional standardized exams once in elementary, middle, and high school. In the other years, they take alternative assessments after they finish studying units tied to the state standards. Called “Performance Assessment of Competency Education,” or PACE tests, they challenge students to apply skills they learn in class to real-world problems.
Sample question: After learning how to calculate volume, high school geometry students are given a task where they assume the role of a town planner. Their job is to design a water tower that can hold enough water to support the town’s growing population, but which requires a limited amount of material to build. The project, which students typically finish in a couple hours, must include a cover page, models or scale drawings, the calculations students made, and a written analysis of their design.
What are the drawbacks? Costly and difficult to scale
Though New Hampshire started experimenting with the “PACE” tests more than three years ago, they still have only been rolled out in a fraction of the state’s school districts. The state also had to rely partly on philanthropic funds to develop the expensive assessments, according to Scott Marion, executive director of the Center for Assessment, who helped New Hampshire with its testing experiment.
Because of their high cost and difficulty to roll out statewide, Marion advised New York against adopting similar tests.
Example 4: Student-work portfolios (Vermont)
Who takes them? Previously, students in grades 4 and 8 in math and English
What are they? Portfolios of student work
In the early 1990s, Vermont schools began collecting pieces of student work throughout the year. Students stuffed portfolios with letters they’d written, poems, and math problems, which were then sent to the state for review.
Sample questions: In a fourth-grade writing portfolio, students had to include their best piece of writing, a letter explaining what they’d written, a written response to a book or current issue, and a poem, short story, or personal narrative, according to a 1992 report co-authored by Daniel Koretz, an education professor at Harvard.
What are the drawbacks? Hard to standardize
Vermont eventually scrapped the portfolio system. Officials decided that it was too hard to standardize them: The difficulty of the teacher-created math problems that students completed varied from school to school, for instance, and some students got help from their parents on certain projects while others didn’t, according to Koretz.
“You can’t realistically compare a piece a student did alone,” he said, “with one that another student did with help from a parent — say, one with a degree in physics.”