Facts On standardized tests
and assessment alternatives

Much of the time and money devoted to testing is misspent. . . . Test scores provide little useful information to help improve instruction and students' learning. In pursuit of higher test scores, the curriculum has been narrowed and "dumbed-down" to match the tests. Children learn less.--FairTest


Every year, America's public schools administer more than 100 million standardized exams. These include readiness tests, to determine if a child is ready for the kindergarten program offered by the school; screening tests, to determine if a child will be labeled as learning disabled or, at the other extreme, as gifted and talented; intelligence tests, which are widely but erroneously thought to measure intellectual ability; and achievement tests, which measure a much narrower range of skills and content than what we really want students to learn. Because of these and other concerns about standardized tests, educators have been developing alternative methods of assessment-methods and measures that more accurately reflect the curriculum and what parents and the public want children to learn, know, and be able to do.

Concerns about standardized tests

The following is only a partial list of concerns that have been raised about standardized tests. While such concerns and criticisms apply particularly to multiple-choice tests, many of these observations apply to other large-scale tests as well:

Alternative methods and means of assessment

Two authentic and widely accepted alternatives to standardized tests are known as "performance assessment" and "portfolio assessment." Performance assessment looks at actual student work produced over time, and-potentially, at least-at the processes by which the students produce such work, both individually and collaboratively. "Portfolio assessment" is similar. The term seems to imply that students' work will be collected in an actual portfolio, though in fact other containers may be more practical and, furthermore, the essence of portfolio assessment lies not in the container but in the concept. Like performance assessment, portfolio assessment focuses on students' products and processes of learning, but also on their growth in other areas, such as their interest in reading and writing, their concept of themselves as readers and writers, and their ability to evaluate their own work and set goals for themselves as learners. In reading, for example, authentic assessment might include many of the following kinds of information (Weaver, 1990):

To generalize: authentic assessment is derived from what students are doing daily in the classroom. At a minimum, it includes samples of students' work, recorded observations of their learning processes, and students' evaluation of their own processes and products, along with teacher evaluation. While authentic assessment information can be summarized numerically for grading, its primary benefit is that it improves teaching and learning. See the guidelines developed by the International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English (1994).


FairTest. (n.d.). K-12 testing: Fact sheet. Based on FairTest's comprehensive study, Fallout from the testing explosion, by N. Medina and M. Neill. See also Implementing performance assessments and other FairTest publications. Write or call the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, 342 Broadway, Cambridge, MA 02139, (617) 864-4810.

IRA/NCTE Joint Task Force on Assessment. (1994). Standards for the assessment of reading and writing. Newark, DE: International Reading Association, and Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

National Commission on Testing and Public Policy. (1990). From gatekeeper to gateway: Transforming testing in America. Chestnut Hill, MA: Boston College.

Weaver, C. (1990). Understanding whole language: From principles to practice. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Prepared for the Michigan English Language Arts Framework project and © 1995 by Constance Weaver. In C. Weaver, L. Gillmeister-Krause, & G. Vento-Zogby, Creating Support for Effective Literacy Education (Heinemann, 1996). May be copied.