A study of the practice of alternative assessment
DANGER: Road Construction Ahead
Harborside Community Center
When A. first joined the class one year ago, she met with L.,
the previous teacher. The classroom was small with fluorescent lighting,
but sun shone through the windowpanes. The walls, painted yellow,
were concrete blocks. Other students worked on their assignments
quietly, alone or in groups, and the assistant teacher moved among
them. In the next room childrens voices rang out amidst the
banging of blocks and toys.
L. and A. sat down at a table
to discuss A.s reasons for coming to school. A. spoke quietly
to her new teacher, conscious of her accent and carefully choosing
her words. She was searching for response in her new teacher and
considering her new environment. L. spoke softly too, making a lot
of eye contact and trying to make A. feel comfortable. After talking
for a few minutes, L. suggested they do a formal oral language assessment
as a way to better understand A.s needs. Afterwards, L. went
over the results of the assessment. A. began to speak more freely
about her difficulties with language and what she hoped to accomplish.
L. listened carefully and made suggestions about activities to pursue.
At the end of the meeting L. gave A. a book to start working on.
A. smiled and thanked her new teacher.
After class, L. wrote up this initial interview:
Speaks very well. There are some pronunciation difficulties
which are being corrected with hearing and reading the word. A.
has taught herself to speak English and does very well. She is concerned
that, when faced with a crisis situation such as son in the hospital
cut foot she cant express herself in English at all. We will
work on this with vocab role playing.
A. will try to find the time after and during her busy
day caring for her family to practice writing. Write notes to her
son who will respond with another written note for her to read etc.
She will make shopping lists, lists of chores. Practice writing
cursive. Read labels. Read childrens books to Rosanna with
practicing reading the story ahead of time for understanding pronunciation,
then to interject excitement. She will get a pocket dictionary of
any sort to use.
Practice math skills mult div.
Review the folder of work completed by copying and reading.
I reprint this episode in full because
I believe it exemplifies much of what alternative assessment can
be. The whole experience has been one of getting to know each other.
The student has been thoroughly assessing her new surroundings as
the teacher similarly assessed the students needs. The comfort
of the interaction has set the tone for the work to come. A. is
shown that her needs are important and that the teacher is creating
activities specific to these needs.
We learn in the record not only the teachers point of view
but also A.s own concern about speaking in a crisis situation.
The teacher has also guided A. through an extensive list of learning
activities that A. can do in school or at home. All these can be
touched on at a later assessment date. Improvement can be clearly
defined in terms of personal goals, not disconnected skill attainment.
Finally the narrative is translatable to the next teacher walking
in the roomin this case, me.
Alternative Assessment. Ive read and spoken about
it in very definitive and appreciative language. Why then is the
practice so problematicwhile simultaneously rich?
At a day devoted to teacher inquiry, Dulaney Alexander of Operation
Bootstrap in Chelsea discussed the progress her program has made
in the past year of alternative assessment. To paraphrase, she said,
Well, we dont use those forms anymore. But the philosophy
behind them has become much more rooted in our practice.
I remember her comment because it is true for me. A year ago I
submitted an article to this journal in which I discussed self assessment
tools and methods I was using in my class and at our program. Many
of the forms were minimal. Some had only existed for a few months.
Well, here it is, a year later, and those forms are nowhere to be
found in my class or this program. But I am continuing my efforts
to better understand my process as a teacher in exploring and developing
alternative assessment. In this article, I look at the ways I have
experimented and the choices I have made along the way.
When I sat down to write this, I realized I had a lot more questions
than answers. In fact I am going to be revealing a lot of (gulp)
mistakes, which lord knows teachers dont really make.
Ive been teaching for two and a half years at the Harborside
Community Center in East Boston. Ive worked mostly with an
ABE/Pre-GED population of diverse personal and ethnic backgrounds.
My academic focus has generally included fractions, complete sentences,
the food chain, the Conquest of Early America and the presidential
race. I have worked in classes varying in size from five to 15 students
with a wide range of skill and ability levels. The students
goals have similarly ranged from GED acquisition as a road to increased
employment; to increased self-esteem; to basic language improvement
for the sake of day to day communication.
In the class I teach now, each student has something similar to
a progress portfolio. The portfolio includes initial registration
and assessment tools: writing samples, a math survey, a learning
and goals questionnaire, and a reading analysis, all of which are
recorded onto math and grammar checklists and an initial learning
contract. These documents are updated ideally about
six weeks into the cycle and then again at the end of the cycle.
In addition, students keep learning journals in which I respond;
I keep a teaching journal of anecdotal information; and the class
participates in a beginning planning session and a final class evaluation
that provide the foundation for the curriculum.
The learning contracts and evaluations are very dialogue-oriented.
I meet with students to discuss their progress and plan their goals
and document whats been said. To this end, even the writing,
math and reading samples and checklists form the conversation-starters,
as it were. I find the meat of what we plan comes through the process.
Perhaps a useful way to proceed is to sit down with A.s and
M.s folders, looking through the contents, and being guided
by the use of the materials within: learning contracts, checklists,
work samples, self-assessments, and teacher journal entries. I have
used these tools most consistently and they should bear the weight
I have chosen these students because the dialogue between us has
been extensive and clearly illustrates to me, and I hope for the
reader, many of the uses and purposes I have in assessment.
Though I relate the educational activities of two students, the
focus is not on their learning or my teaching, but on the use and
effectiveness of the assessment tools and activities. Also, these
tools are valuable, in some way, to me, the teacher, but not necessarily
to the student. If you asked them about these tools, they would
likely have much different responses (and potentially much different
assumptions about what should be assessed and what indicators they
A.s folder is more incomplete than some. Her initial intake
assessment is missing; some learning questionnaires are not filled
out. Checklists stare out like rock face carved by some prehistoric
gathering, in some incomprehensible language. A. sees her folder
only once every six weeks or even fourteen weeks, if the middle
of the cycle seems too hectic to slow down for a period of assessment.
Nevertheless, A.s progress is clearly revealed in the teachers
log and the writing samples discussed below. The other tools were
not as successful.
LEARNING CONTRACTS The Problems. A.s folder
contains only two learning contracts for a one-year period. The
first is the narrative that I reprinted at the beginning of this
article. The second is dated April 27 eight months after
the first one.
How was the first one used? Actually, not at all by me. I began
fresh in September when I started teaching the class. I gave all
the students an incoming assessment and held initial interviews
with them. The info in the learning narrative is basically the same
info that I got from A. in the fall.
Was that info recorded? Yes, on notebook paper that was never transferred
to a learning contract. At that time I had not been using these
tools for some time; they had posed more problems than solutions:
too time consuming, not readily valuable, etc. Valuable though was
the discussion. As I said, A. told me all of what was in her previous
learning narrative. This discussion, in a teacher-student fashion,
formed the basis of an oral learning contract which we talked about
over the cycle. Also A. was placed in math and reading activities
based on her initial assessment.
In December the class conducted our next major assessment. Once
again, A. and I discussed the next moves and I recorded the interview
on notebook paper (that unfortunately disappeared under the piles
on my desk).
The April learning contract (Figure 1) is reprinted
here. Much more structured than the learning narrative, it specifies
academic categories and a personal/career category.
Why did the April contract survive? At this point I felt I was coming
to understand the purpose and use of these tools again. I wanted
to have some sort of record of our discussions.
A. and I sat down with her notebooks and discussed what had been
good and what had been difficult. This contract focused heavily
on strategies and tasks that A. could work on independently. Again,
the curriculum itself would be structured, as much as possible,
to address the variety of student needs in the class. The activities
this time focused heavily on reading (science) and writing. Math
was eliminated because Anna and other students felt that they were
having difficulty focusing on too many subjects at once.
Contract ends on:__________
|WHAT WILL I LEARN?
Grammar and Spelling
A.s progress is noted only in the comment, Spelling
List is Great!
Was this independent work completed? No. Why not? A. never got to
it. In class she continued writing and reading sciencevery
high level for her ESL abilities. She and other ESL level students
focused periodically on grammar and spelling.
So this makes learning contracts sound awful (or at least my use
of them). Can I say anything in my defense? Yes. They were not the
only source of assessment for A.
TEACHERS LOGSuccess. Based on our discussion
in December, A. and I focused on her writing. Our process in this
endeavor is shown most clearly in the teachers log that I
keep daily. Here are the entries I penned for A. that Spring. These
show her progress from being a frustrated writer to having a much
better attitude and much better success.
1/20 Writing is daunting.
1/27 Her writings were very good, did not question
her spelling or grammar, took her some time to complete 1 1/2 hours.
2/1 ... took 2 1/2 hours to do the MLK writing assignment.
I dont like to write.
2/3 wrote a whole pagegot started on her own, we talked
it out two or three times and then picked the very first thing,
then the second, and so on. Did very well. Worked on spelling afterwards.
Rules and sight words.
2/4 A. to practice spelling is copying the story Little
Italydecided to do it on own. She enjoys story and said that
spelling words that we went over she saw in the story. Making connections.
2/10 Writing, spelling, copied, seems more confident.
Grammar scrambles. Checked her own spelling first. Got about half.
Had Lorenzo [a fellow student] help and then I helped. Used her
3/10 A. once again Im learning a
4/7 Finished newspaper storiesher spelling is
getting very good... she also made a hide-a-word for
the skills page
4/13 A.s writing is getting longer, more comfortable.
We went over past tense verbs in a story she wrote last night.
The log records a clear sense of progress. This record can be
made available to the student to show her the progress she has made.
Though some of the entries are not backed up with details or reasons,
many entries explain the strategies and activities that she is using
to success: her personal spelling list, having her peers assist
her, ignoring grammar and spelling errors to encourage her work
on content, having process conversations with her. Also some comments
cause me to reflect on assignments that were ill-fitted for Anna,
for example, a writing on Martin Luther King Day when she was not
fully aware of who he was.
The entries have emerged when she and I would discuss her progress,
in the form of encouragementremember when you....
In this way it served as a reminder for me.
When A. looked at this record (I gave it to her as I was preparing
this article) she recalled all I had written and was proud of the
progress she had made.
CHECKLISTS. Checklists (Figure 2) proved problematic with
A. We had a grammar and a basic math skills checklist. The math
checklist was too broad and did not represent the advances A. was
making advances that were small, skill-wise, but were very
noticeable regarding strategies. She was successful working on math
if she had the opportunity to work on it for several days at a time
not just one period. She understood better in a class format
than independently. She was very good with the use of manipulatives.
She worked well cooperatively. If we had a checklist for this, or
at least a strategies list, then her progress would be much more
Though there is no record, the class structure regarding math was
re-shaped as a result of students like A. Students were taken off
an independently-paced workbook diet and fed group tasks, often
with manipulatives and a lot of repetition. Perhaps to the credit
of this structural response, A. seemed to become much more confident
and self-aware in pursuing her math work. She went from thinking
she could not do it to realizing she just hated it. She and other
students proposed a structural change because of their frustration
in pursuing math on a one-day-a-week schedule. The result was to
focus on one subject at a time, for a whole week or weeks. This
to me is a clear advance in learning self-awareness and empowermentthough
it is nowhere recorded.
These conclusions have made me return to the checklists and consider
how to revise them to better suit the needs of the class and the
students. The revision will include more strategies and learning
behaviors and also be broken into smaller, more measurable steps.
MATH MASTER CHECK LIST
Adding Whole Numbers & Money
Subtracting Whole Numbers & Money
Multiplying Whole Numbers & Money
Dividing Whole Numbers & Money
Miscellaneous Topics: Whole numbers & Money
COMPREHENSIVE REVIEW OF WHOLE NUMBERS & MONEY
Units of Measure
Adding/Subtracting Fractions (like denominators)
Adding/Subtracting Fractions (different denominators)
COMPREHENSIVE REVIEW OF FRACTIONS
Meaning of Decimals
Adding & Subtracting Decimals
COMPREHENSIVE REVIEW OF DECIMALS
Introduction to Equations
Meaning of Percent
Tables and Graphs
Perimeter, Area, Volume (Rectangles, Rectangular Solids)
BASIC MATH REVIEW
WRITING SAMPLES. The writing samples contained in A.s
progress folder are good indications of how we focused on process
together, with three drafts of a writing included. Importantly,
this was the one thing in the folder that A. could look at and clearly
sense her progress. The first sample we have, from last fall, shows
a short corrected piece that still contains some grammar and writing
and spelling mistakes. The second sample are all three drafts of
a piece she had worked on in the Spring. She looked at this during
our April conference and pointed out to me the progress she had
made: better spelling, a longer piece, clearer writing. She could
also see her process, that her first draft did not have to be perfect
but that she would have several passes to improve it. She was very
proud of her progress.
SELF-ASSESSMENTS. A.s December self-evaluation is
the only one I have on file. Her comments are the comments of many
different studentsbroad and feeling-based.
We learned alte about America and Indian... I dont understand
math divicion... I wish to learned more about riding and writing...
These comments are too broad to indicate much progress. The strength
of this tool is more in the process. We do it as a class. The class
discussion focuses on the curriculum, what has been valuable, and
what we want to focus on in the future. When we do these, students
seem very involved in answering the questions, too, which I think
is an indication that taking the time to reflect is valuable, even
if the record is so general.
M.s folder resembles a textbook progress portfolio.
There is a more complete array of contracts and checklists. Like
A.s folder, there are writing samples that M. chose to include
in this folder, as well as assessment tools. In M.s case these
include a grammar pretest from one of the workbooks we use in the
class. Also there are filled out reading and writing behavior checklists,
adapted or borrowed from the Read/Write Now program in Springfield,
M. is more familiar with her folder, too. She has paged carefully
through the contents at different occasions.
LEARNING CONTRACTSa useful tool. M.s learning
contract focuses her toward the External Diploma Program, a high
school diploma program run by the Boston Public Schools. This specific,
external goal provides helpful direction for both of us. Her January
list offers independent activities for her completion. Goals also
include specific competencies to achieve.
Reading Goal to understand bigger words.
Make a list of words and go over these
Read bigger words in class
Use a vocabulary book to build your understanding
Continue the good work
Practice for EDP
Work on editing list
Units of Measure
Other EDP or GED
take EDP pretests or plan to take GED at the end of March
This contract has been a more effective tool with M. than with
A., evident in the checks and comments that were placed on it during
our April conference. It was used much more as intended, as a contract,
and advances were noted and commended.
The April contract is more bare. The Reading section suggests again
to understand bigger words (her stated goal) with weekly work in
a vocabulary book as a suggested independent activity. The Grammar
section is blank, and the Writing section suggests only an edit
list. The Math section lists specific math activities (adding
with different denominators... whole numbers/mixed numbers/improper
fractions) as well as an asterisk next to the goal Become
What became important in April, however, was a checklist made for
her by the EDP program assessor. M. had taken the pretests and needed
to master some math and writing skills before she could enroll in
the program. A copy of this list was included in the progress portfolio
and also in M.s notebook. This provided her with a lot of
self-direction and was referred to almost daily throughout the cycle.
This contract or checklist was a list on a sheet of notebook paper.
Yet M. held on to it for three months while she worked towards completing
those goals. As such, it shows that forms dont have to be
carefully typeset or formatted to be effective.
In our June conference, M. announced that she was almost complete
with her work toward the EDP. (The checklist had provided her with
an exceptional tool for keeping herself on target). Moreover, her
new contract reads very successfully. Notice the switch between
her and my voice:
MATH: a lot better; didnt know to much about fractions
and decimals and measurements [before]; [I now know more about]
stores and how much things are going to costand also paying
(Working more independently-checking yourself and re-doing your
problems if necessary.)
I like to do math nowseems to be a lot easier.
(If you come to a problem you dont understand, youll
come back to it later, try to figure out what would make sense,
go to a new page and come back to figure it out.)
Notice that the comments focus on strategies rather than skills
acquisition. Also, the recording relies heavily on self-report.
Also, it is not a contract in the formal sense. It is
halfway between an evaluation and a goals list. It does not require
a signature, but it is an oral agreement. It is very effective as
a record of strategies tried and true, or abandoned.
M.s 5 week summer plan focuses her heavily on the EDP skills
she has yet to master.
TEACHERS LOGhow difficult it really was. I had
an ongoing struggle with M. regarding independence. I say this only
to give some background to help explain the sometimes emotional
recordings in the teachers log regarding M.s progress.
The reader should understand the tools ability to record how
difficult learning can really be, a process that does not show up
on a checklist or in a grade or even a learning contract.
2/1she doesnt retain well...
2/3M.up to page 44 (some difficulty with directions)
2/8she said, I feel like Im doing better
than before... she has to be coaxed through reducing...
2/9worked on mathaddition of unlike denominators,
whole numbers, reducing, and simplifyingI had her work with
paper manipulatives. She said it helps a little to use paper. She
was having trouble with simplifying for ex: 11/8 = 1 3/8. The division
step keeps confusing her. I tried to get her to do it without division
stepjust do it in her head. But that was still a challengeshe
doesnt believe she can do it.
2/10Grammar stuff confused herdirections, pg. 37. Has
she worked on this? I think so. Have her check her papers. She feels
comfortable paired with someone, but she wants [my] okay. Safety
and security is very important to her.
3/30she successfully ploughed through 2 digit divisionstill
wanted help, but was able to solve many problems on her own.
4/13worked on fractionsagain idd problems when
directed, but needed a lot of support to get there. I gave less
than usual. When she worked on another segment, she said she didnt
understand. I said read the directions. She gave up in a second.
I told her to take five minutes. She started crying and I held my
ground and said I will help you in 5 minutestry to figure
it outshe complained that the directions were short. She was
right. I showed her the lengthy example and explanations that were
on the same page. She hadnt realized. She apologized for crying.
I told her I want her to work independently. She held on and got
work done. Good for her.
5/10focus on one subject at a time...
5/17checked her own math workgot many of them right...
Very emotional but clearly a showing of what learning isan
emotional and highly complicated task that does not only include
skill acquisition. This is recorded in detail here. Notemostly
very spare, not a lot of details. The detailed entry of 2/9 is helpful,
I am sure, for the reader to understand better the difficulty. But
remember, this is not designed for an outside reader.
This process has been discussed by M. and me since. She agrees she
is working more independently. Again, she has not seen these notes.
Would I share these with her the way I would share the notes with
A.? Yes. I think it is respectful of a student to be up front about
your teaching assumptionsif done in a sensitive manner.
Another obvious value of these notes is for my own improvement.
What strategies have I used? What has worked? What hasnt?
This example, for me, is one of the most powerful of my teaching
beliefs. Perhaps there is a way that it can be used too, in teacher
sharing at my center, or in a teacher self-evaluation.
CHECKLISTS. M. benefited more from checklists than A. This
was most certainly true of the highly motivating EDP checklist that
she was using. A., as an upper level ESL student, was out of range
of the checklists that were in our class for higher level ABE math
and grammar skills.
Over time, M. made clear progress on the math checklist,
though again, her actual progress in self-motivation and learning
strategies were still not listed on a checklist. Her progress on
a grammar checklist was more ill-defined. Her
initial ability was measured on a workbook pretest. The checklist,
which is patterned after the competencies that were worked on in
the workbook, does not record much of M.s progress because
M.s work in the book was sporadic. The checklist needed to
better reflect the actual work she was doing in order to indicate
Grammar CHECK LIST
and Reported Speech
WRITING SAMPLES. M.s writing samples are much less
instructive than A.s. Why? She has three different samples
from over the year that she included when asked to choose something.
They do not reflect the process reflected in A.s. They, to
my eye, look very similar in terms of style and ability. Why? When
she came into the class, M. was already a competent writer. She
has the ability to write long, personal narrative pieces. Her spelling
is very good. Our focus only recently has been on critical, non-narrative
writing. When these samples are included in her folder, they will
indicate the culmination of a lot of work. For the meantime, the
work reflects M.s competence but not her advance.
SELF-ASSESSMENTS. M.s December self-assessment
reports we learned about Columbus discovering a new Continent
and that the most meaningful of what wed studied was math
and science. Her concerns about the class include that many people
come to class late and this seems frustrating to her. Also, a cooperative
project frustrated her because we could not make up our minds
for a long while.
END OF CYCLE SELF_EVALUATION
1. Write 2-3 words that describe the class this cycle.
2. Look in your folder and use the work you see there as
your guide. What have you learned? Be specific.
3. What was the most meaningful or useful part of class for
you? What was the least meaningful or useful? Why?
4. Graph your energy and enthusiasm this cycle below:
Start Early Middle Late End
5. Finish the following sentences:
I liked ...
I didn't like...
I don't understand...
I am frustrated by...
Next cycle, I wish...
6. What changes should we make in class for next cycle.
This is vague in terms of acquired skills; but valuable in terms
of learning attitudes. It could be concluded that M. did not at
the time of this recording enjoy cooperative projects. Also, she
gave me a cue as a teacher that the class could be more structuredor
at least she would prefer her learning experience to be as such.
Her May self-assessment includes a lot of self-praise and awareness
of learning. What I am most proud of is knowing what and who
I am. My biggest breakthrough was figuring things out
that I was not sure of before. My favorite class was
science because I learned things I never knew before. The
goals I did not achieve are learning bigger words because I do not
The difference in these comments is in part controlled by the tools:
different questions were used on different occasions. The latter
occasion seems to have been much more effective in revealing learning
attitudes and encouraging self-assessment. Though her descriptions
are still a little vague, I think this is because self-assessment
is a challenge.
Reflections on my Exploration Into Assessment
WHAT do I think I am assessing?
Clearly I am not assessing for skill acquisition alone. I am looking
for increases in confidence, independence, learning self-awareness,
ability to take new challenges. I am trying to understand peoples
different learning styles: whether they work well cooperatively
or independently; whether structure is essential for self-motivation.
I want to understand the students process. I want to seeand
I want the student to seethe complicated reality of learning.
Am I REALLY assessing it?
The checklists that I use are skills-based, not strategy-based,
and thus do not record all the information I want. Though I may
speak to the students of their advances in these affective areas,
the forms we use do not necessarily speak the same language. The
teachers log and the learning contracts do record the strategies
and attitudes, as do the self assessments. The writing samples can
show process as well as product.
Activities need to be ROUTINE to show progress
Though it is a valuable process, to sit down with students and discuss
their goals, the learning contract itself is useful mostly when
it is used periodically, and updated. Independent activities are
effective if they are narrowly targeted toward the completion of
a goal such as entrance into the EDP program. And I think independent
activities need to be constantly reinforcedperhaps a weekly
check-in time with a student; or time slotted in class for independent
work (neither of which my class had).
Checklists need to reflect the work that is being conducted in
The competencies need to be specific and attainable. If possible,
checklists could be made for strategies and learning attitudes and
not just skills. They need to be referred to often enough so that
they are seen as a tool and not an artifact from an archeological
All this is fine. But what is helpful FOR THE STUDENT?
I have told you what is valuable to me. But only a few of these
tools and activities seem to have been genuinely appreciated by
the students. The Writing Sample was the only thing A. used to report
her own progress. The EDP checklist was the one device that M. seemed
to own. A powerful trait of alternative assessment is
that it has the possibility to become the property of the students.
Teaching logs are valuable for me, the teacher. And valuable to
show processthe complicatedness of the learning negotiations.
If the students get to see it, then it will be helpful for them
If the tools are supposed to empower the students, then the materials
need to be in the possession of the students. Teachers logs
need to be provided and discussed. The checklists and contracts
need to be possessed by the students. The class needs to have time
and structure to accommodate reflecting and utilizing these tools.
It is important for teachers to discuss the use of these tools.
They are alternative, which means that, potentially, each class
is using different forms and procedures. In a sense, we are all
involved in exploring the backroads. Some of us with compasses in
hand, carefully mapping our road; but probably more of us taking
the sudden turn off and trying to remember which road led where.
The GOALS project has allowed many of us the resources to carefully
map our route, and to compare our travels. I hope the Atlas
we have compiled in our Toolkit will help others explore other roads
and paths, and that we will all have the opportunity to share, revise,
and learn from each other.
Top of page
This article was published in Adventures
in Assessment, Volume 5 (October 1993), SABES/World Education,
Boston, MA, Copyright 1993.
Funding support for the publication of this document
on the Web provided in part by the Ohio State Literacy Resource
Center as part of the LINCS
Assessment Special Collection.