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Teachers can identify their power standards and create alternative assessments for student mastery in a way that’s both fun and effective.

How to use alternative assessments in the classroom

Teachers can identify their power standards and assess student mastery in a way that’s both fun and effective

Did you know that a 5th grade teacher is expected to guide students to mastery of 200 standards each year? Given a typical school year of 180 days, that’s 1.1 standards a day! Of course, standards don’t exactly work like that. You can certainly teach more than one standard a day, but that doesn’t give you time to explore them, unpack them, and revisit them, which is where learning and mastery actually happen. That’s a lot of content to cover, and not much time to do it in.

But this is only the beginning. Not all standards can be treated equally. Some have limited application and require lower levels of critical thinking; others are foundational to future learning and broadly applicable. So, how do we even begin to tackle this mess? How can teachers determine their power standards and assess student mastery in a way that’s both fun and effective?

One way to begin is by utilizing a scoring system to single out the standards that align to the chief priorities in your classroom. Consider implementing the following categories and grading them on a scale of 1–5: 

  1. Building Block: How much future learning is dependent on this standard?
  2. Cross-Curricular Utility: How applicable is this standard across content areas?
  3. Higher Level Thinking: What depth of thinking does this standard require? Consider using our Standards Scoring Sheet to help you prioritize those power standards.

Once you’ve identified the standards you feel are most important for your students’ long-term success, it’s time to explore new ways of assessing these skills. A plain-ole paper-and-pencil test tends to get dry and dull pretty quickly, so take this opportunity to experiment with new assessment strategies and determine which ones work best for your students. Here are just five alternative assessment strategies teachers can try in their classroom:

  1. 5-Word Challenge: Challenge students to summarize their learning in 5 words or less (this can be on video or on paper or other mode of communication). See it in action (30-second video) with students sharing what they learned about food webs in 5 words (or less).
  2. Stars and Stairs: Challenge students to use the Stars and Stairs graphic organizer to track their progress against a particular learning target or goal. It promotes student ownership of learning and provides a quick visual of progress. Great for sharing with parents and admins as well.
  3. Present and Defend: Have students share their work and defend their claim in response to constructive feedback. This allows you to see how students respond to challenges and how deep their understanding of the topic really goes. Great for developing a culture of risk-taking and developing students’ ability to exercise informed skepticism. Here is an example of a Present and Defend protocol used in science investigations. This is a great framework that can be adapted for all content areas and grade levels.  
  4. Journaling: Ask students to capture their learning (or their reflections on their learning) in an ongoing logbook or journal. Journals give insight into the process of learning and can help you identify where in the process there may be a break in understanding. They also support student construction of meaning as well as an opportunity to apply metacognition skills. Here’s a sample Reflection Journal from the PBL unit, State of Sustainability.
  5. 3 Strikes, You’re In!: Track student progress against specific power standards or goals by logging three consecutive examples of mastery. This tool allows you to focus on your most critical learning objectives and to ensure each student succeeds.

As we begin a new year, it’s important that we ask ourselves what we want to accomplish in this coming season. I’ve often found that the best classrooms are those that carefully balance timeless knowledge with innovations that push boundaries. I truly believe that now is the time for boldness. Let’s dare to think outside the box, try something new, and make 2023 a year to remember in the world of education!

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