Peanuts, Apple Juice and Redundancy

TEST is a four-letter word to teachers and students, what with mandated high stakes testing and weeks of precious class time spent preparing for and taking them.   Test anxiety used to be the domain of students; now teachers and administrators have it in spades.  Yet there are terrific assessment strategies and diagnostic tools to help us target instruction effectively.  It's as though assessment and testing are the Jekyll and Hyde of education.

A clarification:  I use Assessment for the ongoing process teachers use to tell whether students are "getting it" and where their difficulties are.  Assessment guides instruction.  Testing is a formal scored activity that impacts grades -- the student's or the school's.  Testing may also guide instruction but often does not, being the end in itself.

Assessment should be built into the curriculum and can be as simple as skilled questioning, observing students at work and asking them to reflect.  In the ideal classroom, assessment is continuous and instruction adjusts as needed.  But let's talk about testing.

When I taught Social Studies and Spanish, I quickly learned that even some of my best students were anxious about tests.  They came to class on "test day" dreading what was to come.  Knowing that physiological states affect mental performance, I wanted to be sure students had every advantage, specifically that they weren't hungry or too intimidated.  So every time the class took a test, I donned an apron and circulated around the room, treating my students like honored guests.  I served them peanuts and apple juice, two inexpensive but healthy offerings.  My IVHS students may still remember this.  The tests may have been a bear, but I think the climate helped.

You don't have to feed your students but do be sensitive to them during testing.  Don't stay at your desk, grading or otherwise using the time.  Circulate and see where they're stuck, guiding and explaining, clarifying intent where it isn't clear.  Encourage students throughout.

Here would be my basic rules for testing:
  1. Don't use textbook tests.  Write your own based on your well thought out priorities for student learning.
  2. Write the test before you teach the unit, with the possibility to make changes based on changes in the instruction.
  3. Incorporate multiple levels from Bloom's Taxonomy:  Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis and Evaluation.  By high school, most test questions should focus on the middle four.
  4. Test preparation should take place throughout the unit, not the day before the test.  All along, students should know what you value and what you expect.  Review should NOT be test focused.
  5. Most tests should be untimed, allowing students as much time as needed.  
  6. Beware of complex sentence construction.  Writing multiple choice questions that address higher order thinking often leads to complex sentences.  Be sure students can read and understand the questions.
  7. Correct and discuss tests asap.  Give students incentives to retake the test or redo missed questions.
  8. When students perform poorly, reteach.  (See Differentiated Instruction as a Habit)
And throw out everything you've seen about grading tests.  Point systems tell you little about student understanding.  Typically every item is assigned a point value based on difficulty or all questions are counted the same.  Purge that idea.  Instead, remember what your learning priorities are.  Here's an example:

In a unit test about early China, my priorities might be these:
  1. Basic geography
  2. Understanding how China's geography impacted its development
  3. Explaining how the Yellow River's flooding inspired organization and civilization 
  4. Understanding Confucianism and contrasting that with Western Individualism
  5. Analyzing how the Civil Service system works and how it applies in the US today
Since I've determined that these 5 concepts and skills are the most important, I build redundancy into my test.  This means that each of these appears multiple times in the test, sometimes in Knowledge or Comprehension form, hopefully an Application and sometimes in Analysis or Synthesis form.  This gives students at different levels opportunities to demonstrate their learning different ways.  If the student shows she comprehends but can't synthesize information, she does not fail the test unless Synthesis was also a primary learning goal, practiced during the unit.

So how to grade?  Give each of the 5 priorities above a weight.  Which is most important?  Least important?  Let's imagine I give #1 a weight of 25%, #2 a weight of 15%, #3 a weight of 15%, #4 a weight of 25% and #5 a weight of 20%.  Hopefully my instruction reflected similar weighting.

Let's further imagine the following test items for Priority #1:  A map to label, 10 matching questions and 3 short answer questions.  To evaluate the student's understanding of China's basic geography, I take those together as a whole.  How well does the student understand the geography?  If she inverted the names of the Yangtze and Hwang Ho Rivers but answered everything else well, does she "get it"?  Give her a grade on the first priority combined.  Do the same for the other priorities.  What you end up with is a picture of which priorities she "got" and which she did not.  The grades tell you something important and have meaning.  I recommend letter grades (A, B, C, D) instead of points and you can read why here.

This may seem subjective but in reality, our "objective" tests are even more so.  They are subjective based on what we select to ask and rarely truly reflect our priorities.  Don't give arbitrary tests that tell you little.  Without the redundancy of skills, you don't know if a student missed a concept or just flubbed an answer.

Testing for Mastery:  In a skill-based class (like Spanish), even better is an A-B-F system.  Construct short (maybe 10 item) tests that focus on a single skill, like regular preterite conjugations.  Every student needs to score to a certain standard, say 80%.  Any student who does not meet the standard has multiple opportunities to reach it.  I invited students in after school to retake tests (since they were short, I had several versions of each test) until they met the standard.  Identifying a few learning goals for the term is essential though.  If you know you want students to master 10 key concepts, you can get all students to the standard.  

I eventually gave up on the peanuts and apple juice.  Not because it wasn't appreciated or cost too much (it was pretty cheap).  But because my classroom was a far haul from the nearest freezer for the frozen apple juice and it was too hard to pull off in 4-minute passing periods.  So my apologies to my later students.  I did you wrong.