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Lesson 6.5

Why Tests Matter and How They Work

Kids take a lot of tests. How is the use of tests changing?

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Tests (more formally known as assessments) have become an important part of the school experience in America. Tests come in two main flavors. It's worth understanding the difference.

Formative Assessments

Teachers use formative assessments to check whether students understand material they have been taught. These tests are generally short, focused, and used to guide instruction. (“OK, students, it looks like some of you are fuzzy on the difference between a simile and a metaphor. What’s the difference… Andre?”)

Traditionally, teachers created these tests themselves. Here's the problem: writing good test questions is hard. Some teachers are really good at it, but it's an area of expertise distinct from teaching, and time-consuming. As instructional materials have become more tightly aligned to standards, it has made sense for textbook publishers to include unit tests as part of their content. Bubble-test versions of these assessments can speed up scoring and give teachers rapid feedback. These assessments can also help teachers compare the effectiveness of their lessons, so that they can work together to improve.

Testing jargon: "Formative" assessments are like quizzes. Usually short, and used during a course to see if you're on on track. "Summative" assessments are like final exams that happen after the course is done to render a grade.

Supporters view these tests as a key to improving schools. They create clarity about standards in core academic areas. They strip away excuses, and provide focus to faculty discussions about effective instruction. Many outstanding schools make strong and consistent use of formative assessment data at all levels, from teacher to principal to district. These schools use assessment data to direct attention and resources to help specific students.

No educator would claim that formative assessment is unnecessary. Some argue, however, that the job of designing and delivering formative assessments belongs with the teacher, not the district or publisher.

Summative Assessments

Summative assessments are end-of-course or end-of-year tests. These tests assess cumulative knowledge of the content taught. All of the big standardized tests (CAASPP, SAT, TOEFFL, GED, Achievement, AP, NAEP, PISA and more) are summative. These tests permit comparisons between schools, teachers, programs and the like. They are also rather broadly disliked. Teachers do not get much useful feedback from the big annual standardized tests, which tend to deliver scores late and without much detail. Critics of testing aren't necessarily anti-test. Many simply argue that summative standardized testing takes up too much time for too little practical benefit.

Although there is a great deal of emphasis on summative tests (after all, they count, right?) students and teachers spend more of their time on formative work. It's hard work to write good assessments, and publishers have increasingly found schools and districts to be eager buyers of formative assessment tools for classroom use. Overall spending on formative (classroom) assessments exceeds spending on state tests, according to Simba Information, a consultancy.


Technology for Better Testing

The distinctions between formative and summative tests have blurred slightly through the use of technology-assisted adaptive assessments such as the CAASPP, California's main state test. In the same way that games adapt to challenge the skills of the player, adaptive tests adjust to find the boundaries of a student's readiness, avoiding questions that are either way too easy or way too hard. Some supporters of adaptive testing compare summative testing with old-time grocery stores that had to close in order to take inventory. With better data systems, they can take stock on the fly.

If you feel as though your school is spending too much time and energy on tests, you might want to consider working with your principal or PTA leadership to gather some data. It is easier to have a productive conversation about the issue with facts in hand. Some have found it helpful to estimate the dollar value of time spent on testing. As discussed in Lesson 4.4, in California the average value of a student-hour (based on the operational cost of education) tends to roughly track the minimum wage.

What gets tested gets taught

In business, there is a saying that “what gets measured gets managed.” In education, the equivalent is “what gets tested gets taught.”

Over time, tested subjects such as math and English have received more focus than those that are measured less often. The tendency to spend more energy, time, and resources on tested subjects can result in a phenomenon called narrowing the curriculum.

One response to this narrowing has been to create standards in other subject areas, as the later lessons in this chapter describe. Standardized assessments exist for Science and history/social studies. The standards for physical education, visual and performing arts, world languages, and career-technical education may guide instruction but they get much less attention from state leaders or the public. To provide comparable structure for other subjects and skills, some proponents of a well-rounded education suggest standards should be adopted and tested for life skill learning such as time management, self-control, teamwork, and personal finance.

How did the Pandemic change testing?

The pandemic upended nearly every aspect of the educational system, including test-taking. The shift to online classrooms made it extremely difficult for educators to administer assessments in schools. As a result, many in the educational community tried to reduce – at least temporarily – the role of standardized testing. For example, many colleges and universities waived their ACT/SAT requirements for 2020 applicants. In November 2020, California’s Department of Education announced that it would shorten its yearly CAASPP tests because of the challenges presented by online learning.

No one knows whether this trend will continue. Summative assessments, and their enormous role in K-12 education, have been under fire for years. Some believe that the pandemic may trigger a permanent change. For many years, colleges found standardized tests helpful, partly as a way to defend their admissions decisions from charges of subjectivity. If colleges find that the tests don't serve this purpose, they will stop requiring them, or perhaps even stop accepting them. Some argue that this would be a very difficult decision.

In the next lesson, we delve into the use of technology in education, which was transformed by the Pandemic.

Updated July 2017, March 2019, October 2021


Tests administered at the end of a course are called:

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Carol Kocivar June 14, 2022 at 3:25 pm
Hundreds of colleges no longer require SAT and ACT tests. Why is this happening? Is this a good idea?
user avatar
francisco molina January 12, 2022 at 3:54 am
El periodo mas critico en materia de evaluación es al final de la middle y el comienzo de la high. Es común oír que los estudiantes no estaban preparados para el próximo nivel, lo que resulta extraño puesto que siempre estuvieron en el mismo distrito.
user avatar
Susannah Baxendale February 2, 2019 at 11:44 am
Common Core works to improve reasoning and thinking processes, which puts a stress on word problems. Regardless of the subject, students need to be competent early on in language skills regardless of the subject.

Our daughter, a 4th grade math teacher, is finding that her students know concepts but are challenged to communicate them because of their literacy skills -- and, sadly, their computer skills. Assuming that all children have what it takes to do tests on the computer--and assuming that all schools have functioning computers for testing (NOT!), is something that is affecting her students considerably. I worry terribly about the dependence on computers--it is like an unfunded mandate--telling you to do things but not providing the wherewithal to do so.
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Susannah Baxendale February 2, 2019 at 11:39 am
As a teacher (admittedly at the university level), I find value in short answer questions which force students to compose their thoughts and write; bubble tests have some value but not if it is the only way a student is tested. My husband would say that in math, showing your work (not possible in a bubble test wherein you would do the calculations and then pick the answer) shows him if you were on the right track but messed up in simple arithmetic. He also notes that it helps determine if a student has swiped the answer from someone else and couldn't do the calculation itself. He too is a university professor, but the theory behind "beyond" bubble testing applies I believe.
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Matthew Rosin May 3, 2011 at 4:53 pm
One of the clear findings of EdSource’s recent "Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades" study is that frequent assessments and how educators use the information these assessments provide are part of the lifeblood of higher-performing middle grades schools. These schools are places where this information is continuously shared and discussed, in the interest of constant improvement — a culture that takes time, strong leadership, and technological support to develop.

For example, in these schools:

• Teachers frequently administer benchmark, diagnostic, and classroom-based assessments of student learning to inform their teaching. (Interviews we've conducted more recently make clear that these could include teacher- or school-developed quizzes, unit tests contained in the adopted curriculum, and district-wide benchmarks, and in some cases might be developed using standards-aligned item banks.)

• Teachers use the resulting feedback to better understand and set goals for the learning of individual students, and to rapidly identify any students needing additional support or intervention.

• Teachers also use these data to evaluate their own work, such as to collaborate with their peers around effective instruction.

• Further, principals use these data to follow student progress and examine teacher practice.

This ongoing feedback enables principals and teachers in higher-performing middle grades schools to make the most of the state content standards and their curricula and pacing guides.
©2003-2022 Jeff Camp
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