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Virginia Journal of Education

A Positive Test

Tests as tools for planning more effective instruction.

by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey

Let’s start with the premise that tests are not evil. Instead, let’s say that tests are one way that learners can demonstrate their knowledge. Of course, students can demonstrate learning in all kinds of ways, including while speaking and listening, responding to questions, through writing, and during performances and projects. Tests are just one more way for teachers to check for understanding. Having said that, we are concerned with the uses of some tests, especially single-event tests that are being used to evaluate schools and teachers. But that’s not our focus here: Instead, we’d like to discuss the use of tests as a formative assessment tool.

Over the past decade, our thinking about tests has changed. We now think about tests as a genre. They’re not the only genre we teach, and they are certainly not our favorite genre. But as teachers, tests are a genre that we have to teach. They’re also a genre that students will confront throughout their lives.

Want to get a driver’s license? Pass a test. Interested in food service work? Pass a test. Aspire to move from police officer to sergeant? Pass a test. Thinking about graduate school? Guess what? Pass a test. Passing tests is a way of life, not just something teachers and policymakers invented to harass students and rate schools.

Yes, tests will be part of life for a long time. But they can also guide teachers in planning instruction. Viewed as a formative tool, tests can determine next steps and instructional needs. Understanding this leads to specific actions in the classroom.
The Practice Effect
When we view tests this way, they become part of our lesson planning. As such, tests are part of every unit we teach. Researchers have found that teachers in higher-performing schools use tests as an opportunity to make positive changes in their curricula.

For example, teacher Christine Johnson wants her students to practice the multiple choice format weekly, but with a twist. In addition to choosing their answers, students in her class also indicate their comfort with each item. On one of her geography tests, she asked students the following question:
Farmers who produce only enough food to meet the needs of their own households are called
a.  government farmers
b.  independent farmers
c.  subsistence farmers
d.  commercial farmers

Students also chose one of the following for each of the questions:
e.  I knew it
f.   I figured it out
g.  I guessed
h.  I didn’t care
In addition to checking the correct and incorrect responses, Mrs. Johnson analyzes student strategies for answering questions, and uses this information to make decisions about what to teach next. In this case, 84 percent of her students answered correctly (c. subsistence farmers) but only 18 percent indicated that they knew the answer. The majority of students reported that they guessed the answer. Without their honest feedback, Mrs. Johnson might think that the majority of her students fully understand this aspect of cultural geography. Her instructional routines provide students with format practice and allow her to use assessment information in her teaching.

Linking Test Types with Instruction
While multiple choice items are probably the most common type of question used, especially on accountability measures, there are a number of other assessment formats teachers can use. Remember that students need format practice so that they become facile with the genre of tests. This means that they regularly need practice with the type of test questions used on state assessments and college entrance exams. Let’s consider a number of types of test items and how they might be used in the classroom.

Multiple choice. Like Mrs. Johnson’s test item above, multiple choice items contain a stem and a number of response options. The best response options are those that are diagnostic and allow teachers to determine students’ misconceptions, overgeneralizations or oversimplifications. The best thing about multiple choice questions is that they allow for item analysis. It’s very easy to calculate the percentage of students who selected each of the options and then determine where their thinking went wrong. This information can then be used instructionally as teachers plan instruction to address misunderstandings.

Short answer. These questions require students to supply items rather than select from a list of possible choices. Short answer items (also called completion, supplied-response, or constructed response) can be answered with a word, phrase, number or symbol. Short answer items are ideal for recall, especially when it is important that students can automatically generate information. For example, Mr. Phillips wanted his students to automatically recognize the difference between insulators and conductors as a prerequisite for their unit on electricity. In part, he wanted to make sure that students wouldn’t be shocked during their experiments. But more importantly, Mr. Phillips believes that this knowledge must be automatic, as too many adults are injured due to their lack of understanding about conduction. For his short answer assessment, he listed several items, including those below, and required that students indicate conductor or insulator for each:
                       wood _______   
                       copper wire _______  
                       glass _______   
                       human body _______
There are a number of challenges with writing good short answer questions. For example, it’s easy to provide hidden clues that give away the answer. Simply forgetting to account for plural versions, gender or articles such as a/an can steer students to a correct response. In addition, the test maker has to determine the level of specificity required of the task. Students may respond differently to a question that reads “The Civil War started in _____ “ and “The Civil War started in the year _____ .”  In the first case, students might supply a location rather than a year. And finally, scoring these items takes time and makes item analysis more difficult. However, when automaticity is the goal, these types of questions are useful.

Dichotomous choices. True-false, agree-disagree, yes-no and similarly constructed items allow teachers to sample students’ knowledge and understanding. These items are easy to score and allow teachers to quickly assess students’ understanding of statements of fact, opinions, terminology and core principles. Item analyses are also easy with these questions, but teachers must be careful as these types of questions can overestimate student understanding.
For example, Ms. Garcia wanted to ensure that her students understood literary devices and used the following item: “Authors use personification to provide inanimate objects human-like qualities.”

This true-false item allowed her to quickly check if students understood the term personification. However, Ms. Garcia understood that students might guess and get the correct answer, so she also used a short answer prompt and asked them to provide an example of personification. Maria, who answered the question above correctly, wrote: “The wind whispers to me like a best friend sharing secrets.”

Her short answer indicates an understanding of personification, but she uses a simile to demonstrate her knowledge. Given that she answered the true-false question correctly and provided the wind a human characteristic, Ms. Garcia thinks she understands this literary device. However, this data alerts him that Maria may be confusing literary devices, especially personification, metaphor and simile.

Essays. Also known as extended-response items, essays are a common performance assessment. Essays require that students consolidate their thinking on a topic and organize information in a coherent way. Essays can be a very useful way of digging deeper into student thinking but they do require more time to assess and have been criticized for their often subjective nature. But when teachers have time to construct and evaluate essays, the implications for teaching can become crystal clear. In addition to assessing students’ content understanding, essays allow teachers to determine student strengths and needs relative to spelling, grammar, mechanics and flow of ideas.

As part of their class on human health and psychology, students in Ms. Carpenter’s class selected films to watch with their families and then wrote essays in response to specific prompts. Amanda watched the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and responded to the essay prompt, “In what ways does this mental institution make illnesses worse? Better?” An excerpt from her essay can be found below, in italics. This excerpt demonstrates Amanda’s understanding of the content and her writing skills. However, it does not address any possible benefits from the institution or an understanding of the time in which the film was set.

This mental institution didn’t really make the patients better. They made the patients afraid of the outside world and made then think that they couldn’t survive on the outside without someone to guide them through everything. They made the patients think that they were children who need to be told what and when and how much. If patients aren’t compliant or are possibly a danger, the hospital workers do something to their brain that makes them obey. For some of the patients they threaten to call their parents to make them comply.

The movie made me uncomfortable because it showed me what it could be like in a mental institute. The people there trick the patients into thinking they need the help of others to survive. They make them scared of being alone and make then think they are like kids. Also it showed what they could do sometimes to get patients to listen by basically taking away their thoughts and body, just leaving a shell. I rate this movie a 10 out of 10.

Jean Mandernach at Park University in Missouri provides an excellent overview of the types of assessments ( as well as the benefits and drawbacks of each.

A great resource for test creation, regardless of the format, is This website allows you to enter the test times and will format it for you. There are services here that cost a nominal fee, but the test maker program is free. In addition, provides hundreds and hundreds of sample test items on nearly every subject that teachers can use to check for understanding.

Tests allow teachers to assess student thinking and understanding. In addition, the regular use of tests allows students to become proficient with this genre. But most importantly, tests can be used in checking for understanding as they are formative tools that guide teachers in their instruction. As University of Virginia professor Carol Ann Tomlinson has noted, “Assessment always has more to do with helping students grow than with cataloging their mistakes.”

Fisher and Frey, faculty members at San Diego State University, are co-authors of Checking for Understanding: Formative Assessment Techniques for Your Classroom (ASCD, 2007).



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