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Alternative Assessment Strategies: Some Suggestions for Teachers
by Sara Hill - Literacy Assistance Center

Standardized testing is only one pane of the multi-faceted window through which we can view the progress of literacy students. While tests measure whether students can do isolated skills out of context, they do not reflect or encourage the kinds of behaviors that go on in 'real' reading and writing.

Students' reading and writing often change in a qualitative sense rather than in a quantitative sense (one that can be measured), very often in the context of a great deal of reading and writing done for a variety of purposes. These changes can often be identified by the students themselves, encouraging critical, reflective thinking about reading/ writing processes. While some programs may be required to administer a standardized test, teachers and students can often make an assessment using other, less formal strategies. the following is a list of some 'homemade' tools which teachers could use with their students.

1. Writing Folders / Portfolios: (See Note 1)
The writing folder or portfolio is a way of keeping track of the changes in individual student writing, and contains all writing form the beginning of the classscraps, notes, drawings, lists, drafts, revisions, final pieces, etc. Journal entries, too, may be important to keep in the folder. All should be dated so that you can have a clear sense of writing growth, and both student and teacher should have access to it - perhaps keeping it in a special 'folder box.' From time to time the teacher and student should go through the folder, with the student selecting 'favorite' and least favorite pieces and talking about what worked and didn't work. Teacher and student might also note changes in the spelling and mechanics of writing over time, and whether or not a student is revising or has discovered new revision strategies. "What emerges," according to Dennie Wolf, "is not just insight about paragraphs or pieces...(but) histories as writers."

2. Reading File:
A reading file is a way for students to keep track of the books they've read over the course of the year of cycle, and could be an important part of a self-assessment procedure.

The file could be an index box left where each student would have her own card with sections for the date the book was read, the title, and any other comment the reader has (i.e., that is was interesting, a part was confusing, a small summary). The student could use the card as a way to reflect on what she's been reading, how she may be understanding books differently or enjoying books more, in addition to seeing the number of books read over a period of time. The cards might contain room for comments about other kinds of reading the student has been doing, for example, the reading of letters, newspapers, magazines, recipes, etc.

3. Interviews:
An initial interview seems to be crucial in finding out students' needs, interests and goals. The information from intake interviews can be helpful in planning lessons and in assessment down the road. Interviews can be simply done, and not only ask students about their hopes and goals for the future, but about their past learning experiences, their feelings about reading and writing, and their ideas about how to go about doing it. The interview can be redone at a later date with the student, perhaps exploring what goals have been met. Also, the student's changing views of reading and writing can be an important aspect of emerging literacy. For example, a student may have started out equating spelling with writing, but change this notion to include clarity, meaning, and communication.

4. Tape Recording Oral Reading and Self- Assessment of Oral Reading Miscues: (See Note 2)
Oral reading isn't always the best way to assess reading fluency, but most students see reading out loud in terms of confidence. If you or your program do an oral reading inventory, you might ask if the student would like to tape record his reading. Then, when you administer the task again after a few months, you might listen together to the previous recording and talk about changes that have taken place. Also, it can be very helpful to share miscues with students, and for them to talk about why they think they make the miscues that they do. They can also become aware of the reading cues that they use already, such as reading for meaning, word beginnings, etc.


Reflective writings about:

  • personal and career goals
  • accomplishments and progress in the corps
  • plans for future learning and skill development

Formal writing:

  • resume
  • letter to the editor
  • business letter
  • essays
  • work reports

Writing in process:

  • journal entries
  • free writing
  • list of writing topics

Creative work:

  • poems, short stories, plays, song lyrics, autobiography
  • artwork


  • lists of books read
  • lists of new vocabulary words
  • critical book reports

Documents about work:

  • photos of work in process and before-and-after
  • actual work products (blueprints, data collected, calculations)
  • work logs and reports

Documents about Life Skills:

  • research conducted in the community
  • writing about life decisions
  • notes on information learned during Life Skills workshops


  • speeches and presentations (cassette tape or print)

Performance evaluations

  • by work supervisors, teachers, administrators, peers.

Formal recognition:

  • Awards and recognition certificates
  • Test results (TABE, GED)
  • Transcripts from all educational programs attended
  • Copy of high school diploma and certifications

1. See the work of Anne Bingham, "Using Writing folders to Document Student Progress" in Understanding Writing: Ways of Observing, Learning and Teaching. Thomas Newkirk and Nancy Atwell, eds. 1986, Chelmsford, Mass.: Northeast Regional Exchange. Also see Dennie Palmer Wolf's "Portfolio Assessment: Sampling Student Work" in Educational Leadership, April, 1989.

2. The idea for tape recording came from Rita Kelly at the International Center for the Disabled in New York City. The idea for self-assessment of miscues came from Marilyn Collins of Literacy Volunteers of New York City.

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