Photo Credit: Rifka Schonfeld

Q: What do “alternative assessments” mean?

When we want to know what students know, we give them a test or a quiz. However, these forms of testing don’t always reflect the application of the skills they are learning every day. In other words, tests and quizzes are an essential part of the learning process, but should not be the only forms of assessment teachers use to evaluate a student’s knowledge. Forms of testing that are not actual “tests” are called alternative assessments. Below, I have outlined a few possibilities for alternative assessments in elementary through high school:



Elementary School:

            Bookmark. A typical way to know what a student understands about a book or short story would consist of questions or a book report. Instead, teachers can tell students that they need to create a bookmark with a synopsis on one side and key vocabulary words on the other. This bookmark can then be transferred to the next book for use. At the end of the year, the student can also compile a scrapbook of all the bookmarks created for the reading that year. This not only tests the students’ knowledge of the contents of the book, but also helps them see their progression as the year continues.

            Recipe. For math and science, a great alternative assessment is to give the students a recipe and ingredients for cookies or other baked goods. Then, give the students instructions for halving or doubling. Depending on the level of the student, fractions can be involved. If possible, the school can also provide measuring cups and spoons so that students can actually measure out the contents of each ingredient. Multiplication, division, and measurement are all tested in this alternative assessment.

            Time line. For social studies teachers assigning a different time period in history to different students in order to create a timeline can be an effective testing measure. The time lines would require students to understand the sequence of historical events and additionally force them to think about cause and effect.


High School:

            Literature circles. Students in high school can read books in groups and discuss them with their peers. In order to ensure that students are held accountable for their reading and discussions, teachers can audio-record these conversations and evaluate them on depth and sophistication. This alternative assessment adds verbal presentation into an English classroom that might otherwise only include written assessments.

            At-home labs. Science classes don’t always have the material, space, or time for lab work, but there are great labs that teachers can assign to students to be completed at home with everyday household items and regular kitchen equipment. With these labs (and the reports students write up after), students can demonstrate their knowledge of both math and chemistry in addition to an in-class written test.

            Director’s notebooks. When reading plays (especially ones written a long time ago), students are often confounded by the language. A great way to test students’ knowledge, while also engaging and motivating them, is to have them create a “director’s notebook.” In it, they would annotate the scripts with difficult vocabulary, stage directions, and tone. Then, the students would perform the scene for the class, thus demonstrating their knowledge of the subject at hand.


In addition to, not instead of…

Alternative assessments are an extremely important part of understanding what students know beyond the scope of tests and quizzes. That being said, tests and quizzes do hold an important place in the classroom. Children’s mind work in different ways and, therefore, different assessments are necessary to give teachers information on what their students grasp and understand. An added bonus is the boost to the self-esteem of a child who doesn’t usually excel through traditional testing methods.


Q: What is differentiated instruction?

In their book, Differentiated Instruction in the English Classroom, Barbara King-Shaver and Alyce Hunter explain that teachers can choose to differentiate their curriculum in three areas of modification: content, process, and product. Content is what a student is to learn; process is how the student will learn the content; and product is how the student is to display what he or she learned.


Content: If the curriculum is flexible, the teacher may modify what texts and concepts the students will study.

Process: Children can be involved in listening, writing, movement, musical, or reading activities. They can then discuss their separate activities in a whole class discussion.

Product: Upon completion of the unit of study, the teacher must determine the parameters for the final product. The teacher may choose to have the students write an essay, create a diorama, write a poem, or various other appropriate projects.


How Do You Decide to Modify?

Carol Ann Tomlinson, a pioneer of differentiated instruction and a professor at the University of Virginia, explains that teachers should look at student readiness, interest, and learning styles when deciding how to formulate their classrooms and curriculum. Student readiness represents how prepared or skilled the student is; interest is what a student likes, wants, or loves to do; learning style is how a student learns best.

Starting to assess student readiness, interests, and learning styles at the very beginning of the school year will enable teachers to better educate their students in the manner that is appropriate for individuals. Pre-assessment, or diagnostic testing, is a wonderful tool for understanding what a student knows before the year begins. While some students might have mastered some of the sophisticated understandings that are planned for the year, others might be deficient in precursor skills necessary to become proficient later on. A teacher who intends to support success for each learner needs a sense of learners’ starting points as a unit begins.

Simple back to school pre-assessments could include questions such as, “Do you need quiet when you study? What did you do over the summer? What is your favorite subject in school? Would you rather read a book or listen to a tape? Do you prefer Judaic subjects or secular subjects? How much time to you spend on homework each night?”

Using these pre-assessments will give teachers an idea of where they are starting with their students at the beginning of the year. In The New York Times, Dr. Susan Demirsky Allan, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Michigan, explains, “Nothing is a magic bullet, but if you start from where the student is, looking at his or her potential, then the likelihood of meeting that student’s academic needs increases enormously.”


Q: Why do we need differentiated instruction?

Speaking to teachers of young children, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) reminds us that it is the responsibility of schools to adjust to children’s developmental needs and levels rather than expecting children to adapt to an educational system that fails to address their individual needs and development. Therein lies the rationale behind teaching students through differentiated instruction. As I strongly advocate, “If he cannot learn the way we teach, we had better teach the way he can learn.”

In their book, Integrating Differentiated Instruction and Understanding by Design, Carol Ann Tomlinson and Jay McTighe argue that, “Learning happens within students, not to them. Learning is a process of making meaning that happens one student at a time.” For this very reason, differentiated instruction is a successful tool in teaching individual students in their own individual ways.


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An acclaimed educator and social skills ​specialist​, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at