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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Assessment Opinion

Alternatives to Standardized Tests During a Pandemic Year

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 24, 2021 7 min read
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The new special question-of-the-week is:

What are alternatives to giving standardized tests in the middle of a pandemic?

The Biden administration’s unwise decision to require standardized testing this year is resulting in even more pressure on teachers and students—like any of us need more!

Today’s guests share some ideas for alternative assessments that could be more useful, accurate, and supportive for all who are spending their days in the physical or virtual classroom.

You might also be interested in previous columns appearing here on Assessment, as well as The Best Articles Describing Alternatives To High-Stakes Testing.

‘Flawed Data’

David DeMatthews is an associate professor of educational leadership and policy in the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin.

Mary Grace McFarland is a master’s student studying education policy at UT-Austin.

Lebon Daniel James III is a Ph.D. candidate in the educational policy and planning program in the College of Education at UT-Austin.

The Biden administration recently decided that all states must conduct standardized tests this year despite significant concerns raised by researchers, policymakers, educators, and families. The decision will provide flawed data, but schools should still take alternative actions to better support their students.

We implore principals and teachers to work together as they seek alternatives. The first step they can take is to reflect on their own experiences with standardized testing.

Most principals and teachers know that state standardized tests do not provide actionable data to adapt and individualize instruction in real time. The disruption caused by the pandemic will make state tests even less useful because many students will opt out, and it will be unclear what test scores are actually measuring given the diversity of student experiences.

State tests provide limited amounts of actionable data partly because they are given annually in paper or online form utilizing mostly multiple-choice questions designed for large populations. Principals and teachers do not receive results for lengthy periods of time, which means any data that might be actionable is likely outdated.


Teacher-developed formative assessments typically provide the most meaningful and actionable data, especially when the design process is aligned to standards and considers the appropriate number of sample items necessary to draw accurate conclusions. Teachers can work collaboratively across a grade-level team or subject area to develop high-quality common formative assessments to gain insights into student-learning progression at the classroom and campus levels.

Principals and teachers should also consider utilizing adaptive tests like NWEA’s Measures of Academic Progress, which are computerized and adapt future questions based on student responses in real time. Adaptive tests allow teachers to immediately gain an understanding of student misconceptions and track student progress over time rather than relying on a singular data point after several months have passed.

State tests are also outdated because they fragment important knowledge into core-subject areas that are often irrelevant in the real world. As principals and teachers search for assessment alternatives as schools reopen, they should ask what they want their classrooms to look like and what outcomes would they like to assess and monitor over time.

Assessing a student’s ability to read, write, and calculate remains important. However, most educators we talk to also care deeply about critical thinking, scientific literacy, social and emotional well-being, and civic engagement. Principals and teachers should invest their time and resources in developing instruction and assessing progress specific to these critical areas.

A competency-based approach to instruction and assessment will be useful as schools reopen, especially considering that student motivation has been a challenge among parents and educators during the pandemic. Schools that successfully adopt competency-based approaches empower students to make decisions about their learning, which will improve student motivation.

A competency-based approach can utilize varied pacing so students can follow their own individualized learning pathway while assessments are designed to provide student feedback that is “useful, growth-oriented, and actionable.” This approach is particularly timely given that it provides continuous and individualized support to students.

Performance-based assessments might also be an alternative to standardized testing because they enable teachers to assess complex tasks across multiple disciplines. For example, Stanford University researchers have developed and promoted performance assessments in science that emphasize the importance of students revisiting and deepening their understanding of core concepts across grade levels while also making connections across multiple disciplines. These assessments can provide teachers greater insight into students’ content knowledge and critical-thinking skills while offering students a more meaningful and authentic opportunity to display what they have learned and how they might improve in the future.

Finally, principals and teachers could engage in “individualized student audits” to identify trends in student progress and target resources to address inequities and areas of need. Harvard professor Andrew Ho described a process of comparing student performance over multiple years and utilizing comparison groups of “academic peers” to identify students who may continue to struggle.

We suggest a more expansive audit that would also look specifically at students with disabilities and English-language learners to ensure that the appropriate services, eligibility testing, and progress-monitoring activity took place before and during the pandemic. For planning purposes, principals and teachers will need to discuss individual and student-group progress to allocate time and resources given any disruption to their learning trajectories.

The alternatives to standardized testing presented here are not comprehensive but rather a set of first steps for utilizing more varied, authentic, and student-centered approaches to instruction and assessment. While the pandemic has significantly disrupted schools, we are excited about schools reopening when it is safe and engaging in creative, interdisciplinary, and student-centered efforts to improving instruction and assessment.


Thanks to David, Mary, and Lebon for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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