Beyond the Test: 10 Innovative Ways to Assess Secondary Students

Are your students moaning and groaning over taking another test or writing another essay? While these are tried and true methods for assessing many skills, I have been on a mission to find more innovative, unique ways of assessing student growth and learning.

Some of my fondest memories of high school come from the interesting projects I completed in different classes. I was very fortunate to have some fantastic teachers who challenged me to think outside the box with their unique approaches to assessments. Like that time in Physics when we had to create a catapult that could shoot a tennis ball 25 yards on the football field, or that time when our AP Chem class visited the middle school to perform lab experiments (hydrogen bubbles, anyone?), or that time when we had to create a utopian university and present it to the school. These are all memories that are still vivid in my mind because they were different, and they were highly engaging. I don’t recall many essays I’ve written, and I certainly don’t remember most of the worksheets I’ve done in my lifetime. Reflecting back on these memories from my school experience inspired me to seek out unique ways to assess my own students beyond traditional assignments.

Here are FIVE INNOVATIVE assessment techniques for secondary classes:

1.  Infographic

The infographic is a new and improved computer version of the old school “book cover” or “brochure” assignment. Students create a poster-like graphic about a particular topic that includes key facts, information, statistics, research, quotations, graphics, images, charts, etc. These make excellent exam review guides, and students can swap them for study purposes. You can find lots of great examples of infographics on Pinterest and online to use as models for your students.


2.  Gaming

We all know that our students are increasingly more and more “plugged in” to technology.  There are two ways we can respond to this reality. We can choose to ignore it , or we can use it to our advantage in how we assess our students.  I wrote an entire post about 15 computer games specifically for English Language Arts, (you can find this article here or by clicking on the image to the left), but there are many, many more games where these came from. While researching games for English Language Arts, I found several online games about physics, chemistry, history, foreign language, and math. There are also several websites and apps out there where students can create their own computer games, and there are lots of derivations of SimCity wherein players have to “build” something using strategic thinking and planning. If you’re like me, doing anything with technology can be intimidating, but the awesome advantage we have as secondary teachers is that we can use our students as a resource.  If you are intimidated by the idea of finding these games and figuring them out all on your own, consider having your students do the leg work and report back to the class. They can even write “how-to” instruction guides for using various gaming resources as part of a project, and then you can use these guides in future classes to instruct students. Putting students in charge of gaming can save you anxiety and time, and I guarantee your students will be inspired and excited to integrate gaming into your class.

Here are some fantastic gaming resources to check out:


3.  Living Museum

As secondary teachers, we can certainly learn quite a bit from elementary teachers. Elementary teachers are super creative and can be a great resource for us to generate new ideas to adapt to the secondary level. An elementary teacher friend of mine did a “living museum” project at his school where the students had to dress up as a famous historical figure, create a display, and put on a “living museum”– sort of like a live action version of Disney’s “Moments with Mr. Lincoln.”  Parents, students, and faculty would come by each display and push a pretend “button” to bring the character to life. The student (dressed as this historical figure) would then do a 2-3 minute presentation on his/her life, times, and achievements. I love this idea and think it is a great fit for secondary students as well.


4.  Free Choice Project

I know that the very sound of this idea can be quite scary to some teachers. Releasing control in the secondary classroom can be quite a challenge because we fear that our students will get off-track and will not acquire the necessary skills to score well on standardized testing. I think some of us (self included) have some PTSD from standardized testing, but I have always found that when students have the freedom to explore areas of interest, they work harder than ever. For this kind of project, you would create a rubric based on specific skills and instruct students to evidence these skills in any format of their choice. I have had students create films, put on plays, create websites, put on fashion shows or history pageants, host historic banquets and game-a-thons, run campaigns, etc. The majority of the time, the free choice project is the students’ best work. They are excited to do this project and even more excited to show their peers what they’ve created. Give it a try!


5.  Illustrated Quote

This is an easy formative or summative assessment for any content area. The illustrated quote does what it’s called—it illustrates a key quotation from a text. Students can take this assignment one step further and write an explication of their illustration, or swap with classmates as a means of reviewing important ideas.


6.  Merit Badges

These are not your old school merit badges from Scouts. Today, earning badges takes on a whole new meaning with the gaming generation. Many computer and video games score players based upon the number of badges they earn as well as the prestige of those badges. Imagine creating a system in your classroom wherein students can earn various badges throughout the school year to reach the top. These merit badges can be connected to skills standards and carry unique names that represent specific skills achievements: the Bard’s Badge, the Quadratic Badge, the Rhetorical Analysis Badge, the Chemical Formula Badge, the 1776 Badge, the Green Light Badge, the Periodic Table Badge, etc. Think of giving badges instead of grades to turn your class into a real life game. Create new levels or worlds for each grouping of badges for students to advance through, and post rankings online for students to track. Students can even earn various advantages by earning certain badges. For example, you can offer Extra Credit Badges to students for completing extra assignments or projects, and if they earn three of these badges, they can then use their notes on the next test—or something like this to incentivize students. Grand prizes can be anything you wish—ranging from a permanent engraving of their name as part of the “hero circle” posted on a wall in your room to a special pizza party for top winners to a special field trip for top scorers. The options are limitless.


7.  Community Service

This is definitely a project that would need to be approved by your principal and possibly your school district. But if you can get approval, try requiring that your students complete a certain number of community service hours as part of their grade for your class. They can volunteer to do something related to the content area of your class. For example, if you teach a science-related class, students can volunteer at science museums, recycling centers, meteorology centers, etc. If you teach a history class, students can volunteer at a history museum, or they can even create history presentations to give to younger students at local schools. For English classes, they could volunteer for a local news publication, create a brochure for a local non-profit, or even contribute content to blogs on various topics. Getting secondary students involved in the actual world is important so that they realize the skills they are learning in the classroom can be used in the “real” world. Students can share their community service projects with the class periodically throughout the year. I usually  have my students create films of their yearlong volunteer experiences, which they share at a school-wide film festival at the end of the year. This is an especially impactful project for seniors before they go off to college.


8.  Podcast

Create a class podcast, and have your students take turns throughout the school year doing podcast discussions and presentations on various topics that pertain to your content area. You can require your students to “tune in” weekly to the podcast and complete reflective assignments based upon that week’s podcast. Don’t worry if you aren’t familiar with how to set up, coordinate, and operate a podcast. There are several resources online for how to do this (click here for an excellent how-to article), OR simply ask your students to help you figure it out. They CAN!


9.  Class Anthology

Creating a class anthology is not the most innovative concept, but the way I implement it is a bit different. I like the concept of releasing control in the secondary classroom in order to help students become independent thinkers. When they create a class anthology, I have them apply for three “roles” that are typical to a newspaper or magazine staff from editor to copy editor to advertising to editorial photographer, art editor, etc. Once I have read their applications, selected their specific job roles, and laid out the specific requirements for the class anthology, I step away from the process. I show them example products and give them a due date, and then it is UP TO THE CLASS to figure out how to get from A to Z—how to get from the assignment to the publication date. Believe me that they will struggle as a group to get organized, but that is part of the learning process. I remember when my husband was in business school, every single project he did was a group project—and that was part of the learning experience. It is difficult not to step in and “save” your students when you see them floundering, but it is important to let them figure it out. And they will somehow get the anthology done. Typically, the final products are quite amazing, and students are very proud of their final products. You can opt to have them publish online, but I prefer to have them do a bound book because they have to manage the publication process as well as raising funds to pay for printing—the financial aspect of this may or may not be feasible in your school. I like having these bound books to add to my classroom library, and students can read them throughout the school year and for many years yet to come. This is a project that I have my seniors do, so consider your group of students and whether or not this would be something they could handle. There are many ways to modify this concept, and you can add in more teacher-directed aspects as needed.


10.  “Shark Tank”

That’s right! Just like the SHOW! Watch some episodes of “Shark Tank” with your students and have them invent a new product that relates to your specific content area. Then, have students “pitch” to the class. Students can vote on a class winner, and then those students can “pitch” their ideas to a select group of community members and business leaders who can give feedback to the students and select an overall winner. Your students could even put their idea into action and maybe even apply to be on the real “Shark Tank” TV show! Why not? Students need to learn that they have the power to change the world and that it is people just like them who invent the things we use every single day! This is real life learning at its best! Give it a try!


There are many more ideas where these come from. We’d love to hear from you! Please leave us a comment below with any innovative assessment ideas you would add to this list!


Meredith is the founder and creator of teachwriting.org and Bespoke ELA.  She has taught high school English for 10+ years in Dallas, Chicago, and New York City and holds a M.A. in Literature from Northwestern University.  She has always had a connection to the written word– through songwriting, screenplay writing, and essay writing– and she enjoys the process of teaching students how to express their ideas.  Meredith enjoys life with her husband, daughter, and sweet pups.


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