US educators increasingly recognize that students have differing needs and goals for education. The most controversial may be compentency-based learning, which offers instruction and credits based on skill, rather than on time spent in the classroom.

Several companies are capitalizing on this idea to offer new means of assessment. Among the most popular is the portfolio assessment, which allows students to collect a variety of assignment types. Student portfolios can go beyond a grade by showing a future employer (or mom and dad) an selective example of the work the student is capable of doing.

Portfolios have long been a standard in arts fields, where the product of a term’s work is more important than a grade. But they are making inroads into professional (sometimes called ‘vocational’) degrees as well, particularly for students who want to gain academic credit for on-the-job experience.

The portfolio-building doesn’t come for free — even the non-profit Council for Adult and Experiential Learning charges just under $1000 for its instructor-led portfolio service — but proponents say that the cost of creating the portfolio is less than the equivalent amount of schooling. And since many colleges have relationships with these companies, there is a high chance of gaining at least some credit for the experience.

Similarly, in the UK, there is growing opposition to ‘traditional’ testing (such as standardized test or essay-form exams). Although these have long had a place in the British education system as a means of determining who is best suited for university-level education, increasing exam stress and the need for ‘job-ready’ skills have made some citizens question their usefulness. Instead, they ask whether simulations or adaptive testing — already used in North American schools of medicine and nursing, as well as the military — are more helpful for students who are looking at non-academic paths.

While the debate over the value of standardized testing is unlikely to disappear any time soon, there’s a lot to be said for offering a variety of assessment types that are tailored to course content. That doesn’t mean eliminating rigorous testing, or even the scantron bubbles — but it does mean delivering the best education.

About the Author: Jaclyn Neel is a visiting Assistant Professor in Ancient History at York University in Toronto, Ontario.