Monday, December 11, 2023

What is Alternative Assessment? The Role of Alternative Assessments in Secondary Education

Alternative assessments are an essential tool for providing students with a more comprehensive and equitable approach to measuring their learning.

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For many years, traditional exams have been the primary method of assessment in secondary education. However, the use of exams as the sole means of evaluating students’ learning has been criticized for being overly focused on rote memorization and failing to adequately measure critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving skills. In recent years, there has been a growing interest in alternative assessments that better align with the demands of the 21st-century workforce. This article explores the role of alternative assessments in secondary education and their potential to promote deeper learning and better prepare students for success in the future.

Definition of Alternative Assessment

Alternative assessment refers to any form of evaluation or testing that differs from traditional standardized testing. It includes a wide range of methods for evaluating student learning, such as performance assessments, portfolio assessments, authentic assessments, project-based assessments, and self-assessments. Here are some definitions of alternative assessments:

According to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), alternative assessment is “any method of evaluating student performance that differs from traditional paper-and-pencil tests, including performance assessments, portfolios, and open-ended questioning.” (NCTE, 1992)

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines alternative assessment as “methods of evaluating student learning that rely on authentic, real-world tasks rather than on standardized tests and that emphasize the application of knowledge to meaningful, complex problems.” (APA, 2013)

The limitations of traditional exams

Traditional exams, such as multiple-choice tests and standardized assessments, have long been the standard method of assessing student learning in secondary education. While exams have some advantages, such as being efficient and easy to grade, they also have significant limitations. For one, they tend to emphasize memorization and recall over deeper understanding and critical thinking. Additionally, exams often fail to measure non-cognitive skills, such as creativity, collaboration, and communication, which are becoming increasingly important in the modern workforce.

Moreover, traditional exams are often associated with high levels of stress and anxiety among students, which can be detrimental to their learning and mental health. Furthermore, exams can be biased against certain students, such as those with disabilities, cultural differences, or language barriers, who may struggle to demonstrate their knowledge and skills through a standardized format.

The benefits of alternative assessments

Alternative assessments offer several advantages over traditional exams. First, they are better suited to measuring deeper learning outcomes, such as critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity. Alternative assessments also offer opportunities for students to demonstrate their skills and knowledge in more authentic and meaningful ways, such as through real-world projects, presentations, or collaborative assignments. Additionally, alternative assessments can provide teachers with more detailed and actionable feedback on student learning, which can inform instructional decisions and support student growth.

Alternative assessments also promote a more inclusive and equitable approach to assessment by providing opportunities for students to demonstrate their learning in ways that align with their strengths and interests. By incorporating a variety of assessment methods, teachers can reduce the impact of bias and promote a more comprehensive understanding of student learning.

Types of alternative assessments

There are several types of alternative assessments that can be used in secondary education. These include:

Performance assessments

Performance assessments are designed to measure students’ ability to apply their knowledge and skills to real-world problems or tasks. Examples of performance assessments include lab experiments, simulations, or case studies. Performance assessments are often used in science, math, and engineering courses, but can be adapted to other subjects as well.


Portfolios are collections of student work that demonstrate their learning over time. Portfolios can include a variety of artifacts, such as essays, projects, and reflections. Portfolios are useful for documenting student growth and progress, and can be used to assess a wide range of skills and knowledge.


Projects are extended assignments that require students to engage in a complex task or inquiry. Projects can be individual or collaborative, and can take many forms, such as research papers, multimedia presentations, or community service projects. Projects are useful for promoting creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration skills, and can provide opportunities for students to engage with real-world problems or issues.


Presentations are oral or visual demonstrations of students’ learning. Presentations can take many forms, such as speeches, debates, or visual displays. Presentations are useful for developing communication skills and providing opportunities for students to practice public speaking.

Collaborative assignments

Collaborative assignments involve students working together in small groups or teams to complete a task or project. Collaborative assignments are useful for promoting teamwork, communication, and problem-solving skills, and can provide opportunities for students to learn from one another.

Self-assessment and reflection

Self-assessment and reflection are processes in which students evaluate their own learning and provide feedback to their teachers. Self-assessment and reflection can help students develop metacognitive skills and promote ownership of their learning.

Implementing alternative assessments

While alternative assessments offer many benefits, implementing them can be challenging. Some of the key considerations for implementing alternative assessments include:

Overcoming resistance to change

Implementing alternative assessments requires a shift in mindset and practices, which can be difficult for some teachers and administrators. To overcome resistance to change, it is important to communicate the benefits of alternative assessments and provide opportunities for teachers to learn about and experiment with new assessment methods.

Ensuring reliability and validity

Alternative assessments must be reliable and valid to ensure that they accurately measure what they are intended to measure. To ensure reliability and validity, it is important to establish clear criteria for assessment, provide adequate training for teachers, and use multiple methods of assessment to reduce the impact of bias and variability.

Providing adequate support and training for teachers

Implementing alternative assessments requires significant changes in curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices, which can be challenging for teachers. Providing adequate support and training for teachers is critical for ensuring that they feel comfortable and confident in using new assessment methods.

Integrating alternative assessments into curriculum and instruction

Alternative assessments must be integrated into curriculum and instruction to ensure that they are aligned with learning objectives and provide opportunities for students to practice and demonstrate their skills and knowledge. Integrating alternative assessments into instruction requires careful planning and coordination among teachers, administrators, and other stakeholders.

Challenges and limitations of alternative assessments

While alternative assessments offer many benefits, they also have some limitations and challenges. One challenge is that alternative assessments can be time-consuming and resource-intensive, requiring significant preparation and grading time. Additionally, alternative assessments may not be suitable for all students or all subjects, particularly those that require more objective or standardized measures of learning.


In conclusion, alternative assessments are an essential tool for providing students with a more comprehensive and equitable approach to measuring their learning. While traditional exams have their place in secondary education, alternative assessments offer many benefits, including promoting deeper learning, critical thinking, and collaboration skills. Implementing alternative assessments requires careful planning and coordination among teachers, administrators, and other stakeholders, as well as providing adequate support and training for teachers. By balancing traditional exams with alternative assessments, educators can support student growth and development, reduce the impact of bias, and promote a more inclusive and equitable approach to assessment.


  1. American Psychological Association. (2013). Authentic assessment toolbox. Retrieved from
  2. Darling-Hammond, L., & Adamson, F. (2010). Beyond basic skills: The role of performance assessment in achieving 21st century standards of learning. Phi Delta Kappan, 92(4), 41-47.
  3. Gulikers, J., Bastiaens, T., & Kirschner, P. (2004). A five-dimensional framework for authentic assessment. Educational Technology Research and Development, 52(3), 67-86.
  4. Mertler, C. A. (2014). Classroom assessment: Principles and practice for effective standards-based instruction (2nd ed.). Routledge.
  5. Wigginsue, G. (1998). Educative assessment: Designing assessments to inform and improve student performance. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  6. Black, P., Harrison, C., Lee, C., Marshall, B., & Wiliam, D. (2004). Working inside the black box: Assessment for learning in the classroom. Phi Delta Kappan, 86(1), 8-21.
  7. Stiggins, R. J. (2005). From formative assessment to assessment for learning: A path to success in standards-based schools. Phi Delta Kappan, 87(4), 324-328.
  8. National Research Council. (2001). Knowing what students know: The science and design of educational assessment. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
  9. National Research Council. (2012). Education for life and work: Developing transferable knowledge and skills in the 21st century. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
  10. Kohn, A. (2000). The case against standardized testing: Raising the scores, ruining the schools. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  11. Cizek, G. J. (2012). Setting performance standards: Concepts, methods, and perspectives (2nd ed.). Routledge.
  12. Guskey, T. R. (2010). Closing achievement gaps: Revisiting Benjamin S. Bloom’s “learning for mastery”. Journal of Advanced Academics, 21(1), 8-31.


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