A Better Measure? The Funder-Backed Project Exploring Alternatives to Standardized Tests

The K-12 education world has no shortage of critics who oppose the standardized, bubble-in-the-answer approach to assessment. Standardized testing has been a mainstay of U.S. public schooling for decades, but it received a major boost after the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Critics of standardized testing contend that it distorts teaching priorities, consumes too much of the school year, and doesn't encourage the type of learning that students need for success in life.

A funder-supported effort operating out of the University of Kentucky advocates a different approach to assessment: one in which students design their own assessments through  projects and activities intended to demonstrate what they've learned in their classes. The Assessment for Learning Project (ALP) is a $15 million initiative housed at Kentucky's Center for Innovation in Education.

ALP operates in partnership with Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC), and is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. We've written about NGLC in the past. It is a network of educators and funders focused on the use of technology to improve student outcomes and better prepare students for college. NGLC is funded by Gates. It also partners with other top K-12 funders, including the Michael and Susan Dell and Eli and Edythe Broad foundations.

ALP supports more than a dozen grantees across the country, including in Colorado, Virginia, New Hampshire and California. Recipients include coalitions of school districts and state education agencies, charter school operators and education nonprofits. The projects vary in size and scope, but all share an interest in what more personalized, student-centered assessments look like. They also believe that student success goes beyond just demonstrating proficiency on standardized reading and math tests, which were mandated by No Child Left Behind and will continue under the latest incarnation of federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

A recent article in Education Week reported on ALP's work in Virginia, which involves a group of school districts, including Fairfax and Roanoke counties. There, educators grappled with a range of issues around student-led assessments, including which grades should use them, the types of professional development activities needed for teachers, and how to ensure that the assessments are sufficiently rigorous rather than fluff.

To address the latter issue, teachers in Virginia had to learn how to integrate rigorous content and state academic standards into the student-initiated projects. They also had to differentiate student-designed assessments from the kinds of projects that would be done for science fairs. Students may initiate the projects, but they receive teacher feedback, and a series of checks are built into the process to ensure student understanding. These can include quizzes, tests and written activities. Teachers ask probing questions and discuss concerns with students, who must evaluate their own work along the way. Teachers assign the final grade based on a combination of student self-assessment and other benchmarks.

Changing teacher mindsets was another challenge encountered in Virginia. After years of what project leaders called "teaching to the test," teachers had to learn to give up some control of the assessment process and trust that students were sufficiently engaged to do projects that would deepen their understanding of classroom content. As a result, Virginia project leaders reported that teachers were more enthusiastic about teaching.

ALP's activity aligns perfectly with NGLC's interests, which include personalized learning and other innovations to make education more engaging to students. It also is consistent with Hewlett's Deeper Learning Initiative, which funds K-12 activities that emphasize critical thinking and that give students greater charge over their own learning. Gates, meanwhile, has a keen and growing interest in personalized learning, as we've reported, as does the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which has made personalized learning the centerpiece of its fast expanding K-12 work. 

More broadly, as we often note, a growing array of K-12 funders now seek to back approaches to education that better equip students for an ever-changing economy in which creative thinking and problem-solving skills are likely to be increasingly essential to success. 

The jury is still out on the efficacy of student-led assessment projects, but research by Jobs for the Future suggests that students perform better and are more engaged when given greater control over their learning.