The TESOL Encyclopedia of English Language Teaching, First Edition.
Edited by John I. Liontas (Project Editor: Margo DelliCarpini).
© 2018 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2018 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
RAHMA AL-MAHROOQI AND
Alternative assessment is somewhat of a blanket term that is often used to
describe a variety of alternatives to what is popularly considered more “stand-
ardized” forms of testing. Alternative assessment largely emerged in response to
the perceived inadequacies of more traditional or conventional forms of assess-
ment, and especially to their shortcomings when applied to learners with special
needs. Although much of the impetus for early developments in this area may be
traced to the United States’ Individuals with Disabilities Education Act enacted
in 1990 and reauthorized several times over the coming years, which stipulated
that appropriate forms of alternative assessment for learners with disabilities be
included in state assessments (Reardon, 2017), the potential usefulness of these
developments in incorporating the various intelligences and preferred learning
styles of all learners was soon recognized. Their utility is associated with the fact
that alternative assessment encompasses forms of assessment that involve a
variety of tasks, all requiring learners to use higher-level thinking skills in real-
life or authentic situations (Al Ruqeishi, 2015). In this way, alternative assess-
ment places assessment at the very heart of instruction.
Brown and Hudson (1998) state that alternative assessment has gained a degree
of acceptance in the field of TESOL due to the fact that language-testing practices
associated with language learning are necessarily different from testing practices
predominant in other fields. This situation has arisen from the fact that both the
process of English language learning and the assessment of that learning are by
their very nature complex, and English language teachers and administrators have
traditionally employed a larger variety of assessments to deal with this complex-
ity. However, Brown and Hudson (1998) warn that the term alternative assessment
itself may carry several negative connotations, which impact upon its acceptability
and subsequent implementation in EFL/ESL instruction. These connotations
include the suggestion that such forms of assessment involve completely new pro-
cedures, which are untried and not supported by research, and that they do not
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require rigorous approaches to test construction, implementation, and decision
making. For these reasons, the authors recommend using the term alternatives in
Regardless of the name applied to these approaches, alterative assessment can
benefit learners and teachers in a variety of ways. For example, according to the
North Carolina State Department of Public Instruction (1999), it may capture
authentic examples of the achievement of complex outcomes by assessing and
evaluating higher-level skills such as problem solving, reflecting, synthesizing,
and creative thinking. Alternative assessment can include authentic, performance-
based tasks, and demonstrations that are carried out in realistic contexts, while
also allowing assessment and instruction to continuously interact and thereby
helping teachers to gain a clearer picture of their learners’ abilities. Other potential
benefits are improving coherence between instruction and assessment, increasing
the interaction between learners and teachers, and addressing diverse learning
styles. Dikli (2003) adds that, because alternative assessments focus on learners’
growth over time as opposed to giving us a “snapshot” of learning achievement,
they allow flexibility in the timing and implementation of assessment events. This
flexibility naturally lessens the stress that learners experience as part of the assess-
ment process, and therefore give us a more accurate record of their skills and
With a more particular focus on language instruction, Brown and Hudson (1998)
offer a number of positive characteristics of alternative assessments that are based
on the work of authors such as Aschbacher (1991), Herman, Aschbacher, and
Winters (1992), and Huerta-Macías (1995). Such characteristics include being non-
intrusive, as they are often an extension of everyday classroom activities; employ-
ing tasks that are associated with meaningful instructional activities; focusing on
both process and product; being sensitive to cultural diversity among students;
encouraging transparency in the expected standards and in the rating criteria; and
requiring teachers to engage with new roles in instruction and assessment. Despite
this list of potential advantages, however, Dikli (2003) states that alternative
assessment can also present several disadvantages or challenges that teachers
need to be aware of and take appropriate measures to counter—for example, con-
cerns about issues of subjectivity, reliability, and validity and the large investment
of the time and energy that these forms of assessment often require from teachers.
Closely associated with these concerns is the matter of their practicality: alterna-
tive forms of assessment often are more time consuming and more difficult to
implement than conventional testing.
In response to these concerns, Quenemoen (2008) highlights the importance of
ensuring the transparency, integrity, validity, and planned improvement of alter-
native assessments. Transparency is related to the need to understand how various
teaching practices are linked to the achievement of learning outcomes and
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Alternative Assessment 3
therefore requires that assessment development, implementation, and results are
fully open to scrutiny. Closely linked to this point is the integrity of alternative
assessments. It is incumbent upon the instructor to achieve a balance between pro-
viding learners with an opportunity to demonstrate their skills and knowledge
and maintaining sufficient control and structure to ensure the quality of teaching.
Without successfully striking this balance, alternative assessments run the risk of
being either too constrictive (and therefore incapable of offering learners and
teachers the advantages highlighted above) or so lax in design and implementa-
tion that assessment results are more or less meaningless.
Quenemoen (2008) points out that validity is associated with the need to care-
fully examine the effects of alternative assessment over a period of time, so as to
ensure that the claims teachers and administrators make on the basis of these
assessments are defensible. Here Brown and Hudson (1998) maintain that alter-
native assessment has an obligation to ensure validity that is no less than con-
ventional assessment. Validity can be achieved by making efforts to design, pilot,
analyze, and revise assessment procedures so that they can be studied, demon-
strated, and improved. Quenemoen adds that, in order to increase the validity of
alternative assessments, it is important to study whether their uses are defensi-
ble and their desired outcomes are routinely achieved. This requires not only
constant oversight of the development, implementation, and uses of alternative
assessments (as stated above), but also collection of high-quality, reliable data
and a continuous process of improvement and review based on them.
Instructors wishing to employ alternative assessments in the EFL/ESL classroom
have a responsibility to learners and to the institution in which they are employed
to ensure the validity and reliability of their assessments. One way for them to do
their part is to be mindful of the concerns highlighted above and of the potential
benefits and drawbacks of any forms of alternative assessment they use. Commonly
employed alternative assessments in EFL/ESL classrooms are portfolios, journals
and diaries, writing folders, teacher observations, peer and teacher–student con-
ferences, audiovisual recordings, checklists, and self-assessments. However, this
list is far from exhaustive and many other forms exist. Worley (2001) offers an
overview of some of these alternative assessments that can help inform teaching
practice. Several forms are discussed below within EFL/ESL contexts.
Within an EFL/ESL context, portfolios often contain samples of student work
that are used as evidence of learning and language development. Worley (2001)
states that the main benefit of portfolios is to allow students to make decisions
about what information to include as a demonstration of their improvement in
English; thus students construct their own knowledge rather than merely acting as
passive recipients of knowledge. In order to achieve this goal, portfolios should
meet a set of conditions, such as permitting individual students to make meaning,
encouraging interaction between learners and their instructors, offering sufficient
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amounts of time for language development to occur, and taking place in contexts
that support reflective thinking. When implementing portfolios as an alternative
form of assessment in the language classroom, it is important that students are
given enough freedom to engage in higher-level thinking and problem-solving
skills and that the conditions imposed upon them in terms of prescribed content,
presentation style, and so on are not overly restrictive. Moreover, portfolios should
not be viewed by teachers, students, administrators, and parents as an easy alter-
native to more conventional forms of assessment. It is necessary to highlight their
importance and value in terms of improving English language abilities and of
meeting learning outcomes (these have been already announced to all those
In audiovisual recordings in the language classroom, the teacher or the learners
record the performance of a variety of tasks that require the use of English within
authentic or real-life settings. Audiovisual recordings are ideal for keeping the
record of learners’ speaking and listening skills. They also allow students to dem-
onstrate a number of higher-order thinking skills and, where appropriate, knowl-
edge of sociocultural conventions in the target language. Above all, recordings (a)
are highly motivating for learners, (b) make it possible for teachers to compare
performance at different points in time and easily spot significant developments in
language proficiency, and (c) give students a chance to demonstrate speaking and
presentation skills without the pressure of performing in front of a large class.
When implementing audiovisual recording as an alternative assessment, however,
teachers should take great care to offer learners the opportunity to perform in real-
life contexts; they should therefore not make the situation of the recording too
contrived. Moreover, it is important to warn that this form of assessment naturally
foregrounds certain kinds of intelligence and hence may advantage certain learn-
ers over others. Finally, issues of access to and assumed familiarity with required
technology, especially in developing nations or in lower socioeconomic areas,
need to be taken into account.
Worley (2001) holds that diaries, journals, and writing folders can be imple-
mented as alternative assessment in a number of different forms: as daily records
of student progress, as more general journals of learners’ lives, as records of
current issues and news events, as collections of writing samples from across
the curriculum, and so on. Diaries, journals, and writing folders encourage
learners to reflect upon both what they have learned and how they have learned
it, to make links across the curriculum, and to develop a connection with their
instructor that can deepen their relationship while also potentially guiding their
future learning. For this to happen, it is important for teachers to make the writ-
ing process as stress-free as possible. This can be achieved by not grading indi-
vidual journal, diary, or folder entries and by letting students know that the
teacher will only read the entries that they would like to share. It is also impor-
tant for ESL/EFL teachers to let their students know that their entries are being
read, which can be done by adding personal comments to these entries or by
discussing them in class or in student–teacher conferences. It is nonetheless
important to let learners know that lack of effort or partially completed entries
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Alternative Assessment 5
will not be accepted. Moreover, Worley (2001) adds that teachers should expect
some resistance to this form of alternative assessment during the early stages of
its implementation and must seek to counter it by highlighting the many bene-
fits that these forms can have for language development.
As a form of alternative assessment, conferences are commonly implemented (a)
as peer conferences among a small group of students who meet to discuss and
assess the work of a group member before it is submitted to the teacher, or (b) as
one-on-one teacher–student conferences focused primarily on student achieve-
ment in a given area. The former method involves providing learners with the
framework or guidelines they need in order to offer advice and feedback on a
particular piece of student work, in a mutually supportive and nonthreatening
environment. Peers can discuss any kind of work—essays, assignments, projects,
audiovisual presentations, journals, diaries, and so on—with the intention of high-
lighting its strengths and weaknesses and of suggesting ways in which it can be
improved. Peer conferences may discuss how learners can continue to develop
their language skills in an area under focus or to build their English language
proficiency in general. Learners may also reflect in their portfolios upon their
experiences with peer assessment or describe it in their journals or diaries, thereby
improving their self-reflection skills.
Teacher–student conferences may include discussions between the teacher and
the student about the latter’s educational progress; in fact all the forms of alterna-
tive assessment that learners have engaged with throughout their EFL/ESL course
of studies can be discussed in this way. These forms of assessment allow learners
to direct their own learning while applying the knowledge and language skills
they have developed in class to a real-life situation of assessment and feedback.
Moreover, they encourage learners to document their linguistic progress with the
help of other school and extracurricular activities. It is important, however, that
sufficient support is accorded to peer assessors to make peer conferencing effec-
tive and encouraging rather than threatening and detrimental to the student being
assessed. In addition, with reference to teacher–student conferences, the instructor
should be aware of the power distance between the two parties (as the teacher is a
perceived source of knowledge and authority in the classroom) and of how it may
affect learners’ approaches to, and performance during, these conferences. This
point applies especially to traditionally hierarchical societies, such as those found
in certain parts of Asia.
SEE ALSO: General Principles of Assessment; Ter minology: Assessment, Evaluation,
and Testing; Types of Assessment
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Omani Basic Education schools as perceived by EFL teachers. In R. Al-Mahrooqi &
C.J.Denman (Eds.), Issues in English education in the Arab world (pp. 192–215). Newcastle
upon Tyne, England: Cambridge Scholars.
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Aschbacher, P. A. (1991). Performance assessment: State activity, interest, and concerns.
Applied Measurement in Education, 4, 275–88.
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