Improving Testing

My students in Introduction to Education recently had their first exam of the semester. Some came in very confident, others very nervous. One student admitted to me, “I just get so anxious every time I have to take a test!”

I thought that was an important comment–very honest! Many students are fearful of tests. Test anxiety is a real thing.

Scantron Test
Image courtesy (CC BY 2.0)

I’m thinking about how teachers write tests, and how we administer tests. I wonder if many students’ anxieties about taking a test stem from previous bad experiences. And I wonder if there are ways we can improve testing.

The emphasis I’ve placed on tests in my own teaching practice has varied over the years. As a beginning teacher, I gave lengthy, summative tests with many questions. Usually there were lots of objective questions–multiple choice and true-or-false? were my favorites. But I also usually included a couple of “short answer” questions as well, just to balance things out. I gave regular quizzes too, which were often miniature versions of the test I might give at the end of the chapter. And, because I wanted my students to do well on these tests, I usually created a “review guide”…which wasn’t really so much a review guide as a preview of all the questions I was later going to ask on the test. Looking back, that seems a little silly to me: I wanted them to do well on the test, so I gave them the questions ahead of time. How true an assessment is that of their learning?

There came a point about five or seven years into my teaching practice that I began to minimize the importance of tests and quizzes in favor of projects and more authentic work. In fact, my last year as a middle school science teacher, I gave very few traditional “tests.” I still assessed students’ work; actually, I probably did more assessment that year than any other time in my teaching career. But these assessments was mostly smaller, shorter, more frequent writing assignments. They were “off the top of your head” assessments, which I think was better for assessing what students truly had learned; at least they weren’t just parroting answers from a review guide! But the drawback was that they weren’t as integrative and comprehensive either.

I’ve come back to giving bigger, summative tests again. Part of that might be that I’m teaching college students now, rather than middle schoolers, and so the expectations of academic rigor are higher. And, at least part of it is that I find value in having students synthesize things for themselves in a just-in-time setting, not just regurgitate small-scale facts. This doesn’t mean I don’t still use other, formative assessments along the way, but I’m not convinced that we need to completely leave written tests behind us.

What do you think? Are summative tests valuable? How can they best be used? What should they look like? What ideas do you have for improving the way we test students?

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