Okay, high-stakes testing is bad… But what else Is there?

“Alright, I agree. The overemphasis on standardized testing is not good. I see it. So what are the alternatives?”

Earlier this week I spoke to a group of thirty food and drug lawyers as a guest in a speaker series. It was a friendly room, and a few of the attorneys had kids considering Teach For America.

I gave my spiel about my stumbling into teaching, what pulled me in for the long haul, and a more policy-oriented description of why I write about teaching. Inevitably, the conversation touched on high-stakes testing.

This was a politically diverse crowd, unlike the typically left-leaning teacher circles I usually talk to. However, there was widespread agreement that excessive focus on just one test was counterproductive. Yes, you needed data, but getting it only through one end-all, be-all week of marathon testing was not in children’s best interest.

So what are the alternatives?

This key question, posed in different forms by several of the lawyers, is the crucial one for the education community as we move forward. But it’s not one that’s getting much time on the docket. Indeed, the steamroll of Big Testing is on the march, with its billion-dollar publishing companies protecting their interest, politicians who want short-term data that fits election cycles, and a national trend toward bottom-line-obsessed business models in schools.

Big Testing wields so much power that the phrase “merit pay,” which has found firm grounding in the education discourse, is able to exist with barely a question—let alone an argument—over what “merit” in the classroom actually is. It seems a given that “merit” equals “test scores” and that’s that. The implicit message across the board is if you want to be paid more, prepare to obsess over bubble tests.

But wait. There are better ways to assess—and not demoralize— students. (See Heather Wolpert-Gawron’s great piece on what administering the high intensity test is really like.)  We need, amid all the No Child Left Behind-inspired handwringing, more discussion about alternatives to this brand of testing.

Here’s one idea:

The Coalition of Essential Schools has developed an amazing program called National Exhibition month, in which students work on long-term projects that they present to the community. It’s a “performance assessment,” like a thesis project with a defense. The standards-based projects involve teamwork, self-directed inquiry, presentation skills, real interaction with the community, and a tangible product. It’s meaningful work, and it reveals a heck of a lot more insight about a student’s education than his reading paragraphs with multiple choice questions. (You can see a four-minute documentary about the exhibition projects here.)

Why shouldn’t classwork (projects, portfolios, presentations) count? They do a much better job of activating students’ finest efforts and measuring 21st century skills. The only real argument against “counting” classroom work is that teachers can’t be trusted to implement and support quality assessments. That kind of mistrust of teachers is a suicide pact for public education; teachers are the lifeblood of the whole operation.

FairTest.org is an advocacy organization dedicated entirely to more comprehensive, accurate, and supportive assessment of students. Their website is jam-packed with actionable information and research on how to achieve authentic accountability through performance assessments. Standardized testing can still be in the mix, but it just isn’t the only ingredient.

Too many people—teachers included— don’t know about alternatives to high-stakes testing and are thus limited in their ability to participate in a solution-oriented discussion. It’s well-worn ground that high-stakes testing is over the top; let’s talk about how to really get students to show us their true capabilities.