Opinion
Education Opinion

Can Badges Offer Viable Alternatives to Standardized Tests for School Evaluation?

By Patrick Ledesma — July 10, 2011 4 min read

Have you ever heard of badges in education?

Whenever I hear of badges, I remember being in elementary school and the merit badges that some classmates who were in the Boy Scouts would wear to school.

Students in the Boy Scouts were always so proud of their achievements, and being able to show their achievement to everyone else? Priceless! Especially during class picture day.....

For those of us who were not in the Boy Scouts, we had no way to show our achievements. It’s not like as if we could wear a Karate belt to school or show some art or music related proficiency like being able to finally play “Fur Elis” on the piano or Van Halen’s “Eruption” on guitar.

An open badge ecosystem has the same idea. It’s an attempt to answer the question of how one could show others their achievements in a way that is standardized and openly available.

This badge concept is being developed by Mozilla to be open source for all to use. (Anyone who uses the Firefox browser would be familiar with Mozilla.)

From the Mozilla website:

Learning happens everywhere, not just in the classroom. But it's often hard to get credit for it. Badges give you public recognition for your skills, achievements and learning beyond the classroom- unlocking job and educational opportunities.
Problem: You have skills and achievements that don't show up on traditional resumes and transcripts.
Solution: Earn Badges: Get credit for learning outside of school, on the web, or from work and life experience. Collect and display your badges.

Badges in Schools

In education, badges offer a way to document different types of accomplishments that are school based and outside of school. This would give a more complete picture of a student’s abilities.

Policy Potential?

On a larger level, what would be the consequences if the types of badges earned by students in a school were viewable or part of the school profile?

The public could gain an understanding of the nature of learning experiences of the overall student population at a school.

For all the talk by educators and policymakers about the need for “multiple measures” for evaluation or for the need to value other types of learning not demonstrated on multiple choice tests, there hasn’t been much discussion about how exactly these alternatives could actually be implemented in reality.

More importantly, there hasn’t been much discussion on how exactly the public could get information about how a school is performing or get information on the types of learning that students are doing at “some” schools.

The idea of badges could be one possible solution for providing information to the public about the quality and range of activities the students are completing at a school.

For example, at my middle school that has the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program (IBMYP), all 8th grade students must complete a personal project that is interdisciplinary and incorporates planning, research, reflection, and often, technology. This project is meant to signify a level of thinking that is “standard” to all students in an IBMYP school.

Unfortunately, for all the potential benefits of these types of learning, there are no policy-oriented incentives to expand these projects that could incorporate the type of “21st Century” skills we value. One could even argue that there is little public demand for these types of alternative standardized projects. As a result, we stick with our multiple-choice test as the primary source for student learning and understanding of school effectiveness.

What if there were other projects or experiences that all students at certain grade levels must complete that encouraged a level of accomplishment beyond the learning demonstrated on multiple-choice tests?

Can an Open Badge Ecosystem be a viable technology solution for offering alternatives to our multiple choice test obsessions?

If badges issued by the district, state, or other education organizations could verify student completion of other “experiences” that require academic proficiency, creativity, problem solving, or community service, and, if these badges were accessible by the public in some appropriate format, could some badges of certain accomplishments drive demand for some forms of learning?

Parents may demand that their students accomplish more projects that incorporate higher-level thinking and real world problem solving if they see other accomplishments from other schools.

Now that’s real wishful thinking, but we should be open to these fascinating ideas that could bring our policy wish lists to a more concrete level. We need to devote more time and resources to explore how our ideas could actually be implemented in the real world so we can move the policy debate forward by offering solutions.

Real World Challenges

For all the potential of badges, there are serious challenges to this idea.

For example, many students from diverse socio economic backgrounds may not “register” or participate. Some may find the idea of badges a little too “Big Brotherish”.

Also, all states, schools, and communities may not adopt the badge ecosystem. Another potential problem is that interpreting the exact meaning of the different types of badges for making judgments about school quality will be too subjective. Numbers and test results are popular for their simplicity.

As a result, like many solutions that are based in technology, the open badge ecosystem may become voluntary or unevenly distributed, and may not provide a viable policy alternative to relying on current forms of standardized assessments as sole indicators of school quality.

Nevertheless, if we want multiple measures in school evaluation, perhaps this is an idea worth exploring.

The opinions expressed in Leading From the Classroom are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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