Beyond Conventional Testing to Ensure Academic Success for Students and Improve Accountability for Educators

The Problem

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has upped the ante in determining accountability for school districts across the country. This act requires annual federally mandated testing in grades three through eight for reading and math to monitor educational progress of all schools. Federal funding and district issue reprimands will be primarily based on a school's performance on adopted tests. There are three types of school that are most likely to be negatively impacted by the NCLB: 1) Schools in poor urban areas; 2) Schools with a high percentage of culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) students; 3) And schools with a high population of children who receive special education services.

Within the next few years educators and administrators from these types of schools must come up with viable solutions to meet the increased level of standards that will result from NCLB's reliance on high stakes testing. These teachers' challenges to do so will be especially great given the number of other issues that such schools have already encountered while, first and foremost, attempting to insure that their students have unrestricted access to the general curriculum.

Implications for Teacher Practice

Because a great deal of federal funding and accountability for most schools requires assessment to track progress, the idea of testing cannot be entirely banished. However, the type of assessment methods and procedures adopted by educators and their administrators can be modified and/or supplemented to include some non-standardized alternatives. Research has consistently demonstrated that a variety of measures should be used to gain a more comprehensive picture of educational successes and failures for individual students, classrooms, and entire schools (Airasian, 2000; Linn, 1997; Olson, 1999).

Alternative Assessment Strategies and Procedures

Dynamic Assessment

Dynamic assessment (DA) is a set of assessment and instructional methods that incorporate current theories of learning that place a value on the social practices of classroom learning. DA is used to examine a child's potential for change and his/her ability to respond to learning experiences (Quinn & Iglesias, 1992). Most models of DA use mediated learning approaches to identify reasonable learning goals and expectations, as well as design instructional opportunities that children are most likely to benefit from during their educational experiences (Campione & Brown, 1996). Mediated learning, simply put, is the provision of supportive strategies and structuring of the learning environment that has long-term effects on student performance and outcomes. In particular, for children from CLD backgrounds where school culture and community culture may be extremely mismatched, mediated learning becomes the tool for closing the gap (Guttierrez-Clellan & Pena, 2001).

Formative Assessment

Formative assessment (FA) consists of a set of evaluation procedures that rely heavily on structured, systematic, and proficient observation strategies and tools to evaluate student progress and effectiveness of teacher instruction (Silliman & Wilkinson, 1994). FA methods provide clearer and more descriptive pictures of what occurs during classroom interactions and student learning. These methods are relatively easy to use in busy classroom environments and over extended periods of time because they are implemented during naturalistic contexts. Documentation portfolios and journals are easy-to-implement FA tools that have been proven to be effective supplemental tools to standardized assessment measurements (Black & William, 1998).

Tips For Teachers

Dynamic Assessment

One primary content area where there is positive evidence regarding DA is literacy instruction. During reading activities teachers might engage in several pre-reading and post reading activities rather than simply requiring students to read a passage and answer questions regarding the text. Pre-reading activities would include teaching low frequency or difficult vocabulary, reviewing prior knowledge about a topic, and providing specific information and direction about how to extract important facts from the reading passage. Post reading activities would include providing several choices for responses and asking readers to select the best one, asking students to explain how they arrived at their response, and directing students to key sections of the text to verify the appropriate response to comprehension questions. Teachers would maintain written observations for how students responded to each of these strategies during classroom reading activities and reinforce those strategies that seem to work for each child. DA strategies are also applicable to teaching math and other content areas.

Formative Assessment

For young children portfolios containing specific examples of work are great ways to document and track academic progress. Teachers could have students make a notebook or folder that must have a classroom assignment added to it at specified times during the year (perhaps once a month). The teacher may select one or two pieces of work that show problem areas and strengths. The student should also select a piece of work that they'd like to keep to look at later. Artwork, writing samples, and even pictures of children during center activities are great artifacts to include in portfolios. These portfolios can be shown to parents during conferences or as needed, as well as maintained throughout early elementary school for future instructional purposes.

For older children, journals are a wonderful way to document student progress and evaluate an individual's students' learning strategies and blocks. Students will keep track of teacher-graded assignments and non-graded assignments in subject notebooks, for example language arts. At the end of each month students will be responsible for selecting one piece of work that they felt was their best work and one piece of work that they did not do as well on.

Students would then make a reflective journal entry which details:

  1. why is this your best/not so good piece of work;
  2. how did you complete each one - students must list at least 3 steps;
  3. problems or difficulties and how they were resolved;
  4. what will you do differently next time.

Teachers must provide feedback in the form of comment on student journal entries for the above questions and take it a step further by suggesting at least one strategy that the student might attempt during activities that might help resolve confusion or difficulty with a lesson. This process may also be tailored for lessons related to teaching new concepts in science and social studies or problem solving strategies in math.


Strict reliance on standardized assessment procedures to track the educational progress of those students who attend schools located in poor urban areas, those schools with a high percentage of CLD students, and those schools with high special education caseloads is likely to be ineffective at evaluating and improving these students' access to the general curriculum. The assessment approaches mentioned in this brief will be useful to educators who recognize the importance of assessment in delivering effective instruction, yet are willing to move beyond traditional approaches of monitoring student progress. These individuals will ultimately be the group that "stands and delivers" on the promise of educational achievement for students from a variety of social and cultural backgrounds.


Airasian, P. (2000). Assessment in the classroom: A concise approach (pp. 3-27). Boston, MA: McGraw Hill.

Brooks-Gunn J., Klebanov, P., Smith, J., Duncan, G., & Lee, K. (2003). The black-white test score gap in young children: Contributions of test and family characteristics. Applied Developmental Science, 4, 239-252.

Brooks-Gunn, J., & Duncan, G. (1997). The effects of poverty on children. Children and Poverty, 7(2), 55-71.

Brown, A., & Campione, J. (1996). Psychological theory and the design of innovative learning environments: On procedures, principles, and systems. In L. Schauble & R. Glaser (Eds.), Innovations in learning: New environments for education (pp. 289-235). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Frey, W. (1999). Changing cultural demographics in America. U.S. Society and Values, 6, 14-17.

Guttierrez-Clellan, V., & Pena, E. (2001). Dynamic assessment of diverse children: A tutorial. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 32, 212-224.

Linn, R. L. (1997). Evaluating the validity of assessments: The consequences of use. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practices, 16(2), 14-17.

Olson, L. (1999, January 11). In search of better assessments. Education Week Quality Counts 1999, pp. 17-20.

Pena, E., Quinn, R., & Iglesias, A. (1992). The application of dynamic assessment to language assessment: A non-biased procedure. Journal of Special Education, 26, 269-280.

Silliman, E., & Wilkinson, L. (1994). Observation is more than looking. In G.P. Wallach & K.G. Butler (Eds.), Language learning disabilities in school age children and adolescents (pp. 145-173). New York: McMillan Publishing.



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