Alternatives to the Test

The Beacon School in New York doesn’t assess their students with standardized tests. At Beacon students demonstrate their learning through portfolios of long term projects, lab reports, essays and other work that they must defend in a manner similar to graduate students. Or at least they used to.

Because of the renewed emphasis New York state is placing on the infamous regents exams, Beacon has had to reduce the number of projects that students complete during the year. One example is that science teachers have cut back the number of Biology labs from 70 to 30 so students have time to memorize the facts needed for the standardized tests.

At Beacon, Stoll [the Principal] said the faculty is trying to maintain the portfolio system in a limited form, "but it is hard. You have the teacher telling the student to get his portfolio done and he says that he is studying for the regents test. It is like mixing two different currencies, and the bad currency drives out the good currency in a certain sense." Beacon’s request to be exempt from the regents tests was turned down by Richard P. Mills, New York’s commissioner of education, who had tried portfolio assessments, unsuccessfully, when he was the state school superintendent in Vermont.

Jay Mathews’ Class Struggle column discusses the pressure to change the evaluation system at Beacon School and offers other examples of authentic assessments that work. Follow up Jay’s column by reading Chris Lehmann’s inside view as a teacher at Beacon. This is a great example of the current mania for standardized testing forcing a school to alter an evaluation system that they know is successful in favor of the almighty multiple choice. With any luck they can fight it.