Growing up, I remember doing projects as a student. Lots of projects. There were dioramas, posters, science experiments, oral book reports given by the main character of the story, 3-D models, etc. Long before iMovie, I remember working with friends (Here’s a shout out to Lee Mussmann and Nicole Lynch, wherever you are.) and using one of those old, massive video cams to record a news report – via time travel, of course – on colonial America. Nearly 100% of the time, these projects were in addition to a more formal objective test or essay on a given unit of study, but the projects were still important and were given a grade based on the quality of the work as well as the effort put into the assignment. Simply put, not everyone got an A on every single project. It’s true that grades on projects might have been easier grades than those on a test or formal paper, but they certainly weren’t easy in and of themselves.
Students still do projects, but more often than not, at least in a 1:1 environment, now they do things like podcasts, iMovies, digital books and artwork, wikis, websites, and blogs. At their core, the projects remain very similar to those of yesterday. Good research and writing along with collaboration and creativity remain central to a school project. But there is a difference, and it’s an important one. Now you are more likely to hear the buzz phrase “alternative assessment” used to describe such projects. The use of this phrase is not as meaningless as so much other education jargon, though. Alternative assessments, as the phrase says, are meant to take the place of more traditional assessments like an objective test or 5-paragraph essay. These kinds of projects, then, are not given in addition to a multiple-choice test but instead of one. And this is where the challenge comes in for teachers, students, and even parents.
In total honesty, I still favor using projects as additions to traditional assessments rather than replacements, and to be clear, alternative assessments are not meant to totally replace traditional ones. But when a teacher does decide to use an iMovie project to assess a unit of study rather than a test, a distinct set of problems inevitably arises. First, the project has to be well-designed to ensure that the student is responsible for the same level of work and covers the same amount of material as he would be with a traditional test. Projects also are more difficult to grade, since there is much more subjectivity involved. It’s easy to mark a question wrong when the student marks “A” and the answer is clearly “C”. It’s much harder (and takes much more time) to assess a mini-documentary iMovie on the Civil War. Then, too, there is the problem with getting students and parents to understand that, while different, an alternative assessment is still an assessment and thus will be graded as such. There is no “A” for effort or completion when the podcast on the 1920s is acting as the test on the 1920s. This might work when the project is just a project, used in addition to a traditional assessment, but it doesn’t work when the project is the only major assessment for the unit. Students and parents must understand this. Otherwise, they are likely to get very upset when a teacher gives a project a less-than-perfect grade that can significantly affect the student’s overall grade for the term. (Even when the teacher communicates this clearly, students and parents can still get upset, but at least the teacher can defend themselves and hopefully get the backing of his or her administration.)
There are many benefits to using alternative assessments in the classroom, however. They provide an opportunity for those students who might find traditional tests difficult to shine, and they often allow for more imagination and creativity. When done in groups, they flex students’ muscles in the areas of collaboration and communication. When designed well, projects can require just as much research and writing and critical thinking as a more traditional assignment. Finally, projects often are just fun, providing a break from the humdrum of the regular school assignments for both student and teacher.
Still, there are those problems I mentioned. How do we use alternative assessments within our courses without having to defend ourselves against an irate parent for giving her child a B or pulling our hair out over how to grade the assignment well without bias? Although I think I know at least part of the answer, I still struggle with alternative assessments, particularly grading them. I tend to be afraid that I can’t effectively defend why I gave one student a lower mark than another, so I think I too often end up grading all my students too easily on projects. Yet I do think the answer probably lies in three areas: well-designed projects and rubrics*, clear communication with students and parents from the start about expectations and grading policies, and practice, practice, practice. Probably, the last is the most important. Like anything, the more teachers, students, and parents come into contact with alternative assessments, the more they will understand them. In the meantime, teachers need to work on the first two areas. And let’s be honest – it does take work. Using alternative assessments, at least in the beginning, almost always requires more work than traditional assessments – more work to design them, more work to grade them, and more work communicating with students and parents about them. Of course, the workload is not all that matters when it comes to teaching and teaching well. If the benefits outweigh the costs, then it’s worth the work. I suppose in the end that’s something that every teacher must determine for herself.
*(Rubrics have their own challenges, of course. There is a fine line between a rubric that is too vague and subjective and one that is too strict and leaves no room for a student to stretch his intellectual wings. I’ll be revisiting the issue of rubrics in a future post.)