We are used to administering a written test as the only way of assessing students learning. And the test is written in a way that learners are told in advance that they are going to be assessed. They then spend most of their time reading the material for the test, to an extent that they have sleepless nights and nightmares. The test itself is locked in a very safe place and administered under very strict conditions. Normally, such a test is a standardised high stake of multiple choice, administered as summative or terminal.
However, the need to prepare students for the world beyond the classroom has led education systems to consider new modes of instruction and assessment. Educated students need to work cooperatively, find and use information, reason well, plan and organize, use knowledge to solve problems, consider their thinking processes, and evaluate themselves and others. When learning is active and collaborative, students learn by doing, and they learn from one another. They learn in different ways and at different rates, depending on their backgrounds, experiences and learning styles.
These new learning approaches have had an influence in the way students are assessed. Many education systems are now relying less frequently on tests that require students to recall facts and details without meaningful contexts and turning more often to assessments that encourage thoughtful application and meaningful use of knowledge. These assessments not only require thinking, but they also give students, administrators, and parents more information about what is being learned. We need to prepare our students to be creative problem solvers.
Nowadays, assessment is done almost anywhere and anytime using other forms of assessment. Such tests are referred to as alternative assessments. They are so referred as they are alternate to the traditional standardised multiple choice item formats. These include a host of test formats such as performances, portfolios, essays, projects, practicals. However, alternative assessments have common features of authenticity, performance and directly observed.
The authenticity of the assessment is noticed in the test items that resemble the kinds of tasks undertaken by professionals, that is test, questions are authentic to the so-called real world outside of school. The assessment is direct because test takers are asked to demonstrate the skill of interest, for example, in an assessment of writing, they write rather than to answer multiple choice items. They are performance because test takers demonstrate skills either by doing something that is observed and evaluated as it occurs or by doing something that results in a tangible product that can be evaluated.
Alternative assessment tasks are complex in nature hence require learners to use combinations of different knowledge, skills and abilities to do a meaningful task in the real world. They present to students ill-structured challenges and roles that are similar to those roles and tasks they are likely to encounter as adults at work and at home. Because of that, alternative tasks can be approached from different angles, hence have multiple correct answers and the assessment is based on both the processes learners use as well as the products they produce.
The standards and criteria for assessing in alternative assessment are clearly specified at the beginning. There is no secrecy or ambush in assessment. Learners are given a choice as to what they want to do. They don’t necessarily have to do the same thing in a standardised manner. The most important thing is to ensure that they have ultimately acquired the knowledge and skills to utilise the available resources around them to make a living.