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R-e-l-a-x, This Is Only a Test

Testing is one of the most debated topic in education today. So, doing a post on it may seem a little bit overwhelming.  

But, to make it more manageable, I just want to bite off a small piece of the issue and express my opinion.  I'll be sure to take many more bites in the future of this blog. When I began to thinking about the way I view testing and the learning process, this clip from "The Right Stuff" is the first that came to mind.

In any classroom environment, every student starts at a different level of understanding when introduced to a new learning objective.  Every student makes progress towards learning objectives at a different pace.  I don't think there is much debate about this point.  Yet, in many classrooms, all students are given a summative assessment on these objectives on the same date.  As teachers, we have the ability to determine when tests will be administered.  The only real firm date we have at my high school are the ends of the terms.  So by the end of the term, teachers need to measure each student's ability to reach these goals.  Is it right to set arbitrary mastery dates within this time frame? And once those dates have been set, how is it fair that this will be the only opportunity for students to demonstrate mastery on the objective that will count in the grade book?

Shouldn't we allow students to prove mastery when they are ready?  I know what you are thinking, they'll all wait until the end of the term and try to do all their testing then. Well, let's not jump to the extreme scenario first. Let's start with the model we currently have in place.  There is no reason a teacher cannot test for mastery towards an objective for all students on the same date.  The problem is calling this the summative assessment for every student.  As teachers, we have to be willing to  recognize that those students who didn't reach mastery level are still at the formative level and are not ready to move on. They are still in the process of learning the material. If students are still in the process of learning, this assessment should not be considered the end of the learning process.  They deserve the opportunity to master the content we are being paid to deliver.  It is not our job to determine who is allowed the opportunity to master the content and who does not.

What makes sense is to allow students multiple opportunities to self-assess their own mastery and opportunities to demonstrate it to the teacher with constructive feedback.  If the first time they are formally assessed by the teacher is on the summative assessment, there has been a lack of adequate feedback for a student to determine what s/he needs to improve on.  There may be worksheets or practice problems, but are these representative of what your students are doing on a test? More importantly, is the student receiving the type of feedback on a daily assignment which would let them know where they stand on mastery of the objective?

Although I may be moving away from paper and pencil summative testing in my classroom, I have been giving them for most of my professional career.  Once I realized how I was doing a disservice to my students, I changed my testing practices.  I allow students the opportunity to "retake" tests.  Basically, this is another opportunity to show mastery on an objective they have yet to master.  The test is a completely different test that covered the same objectives. Students must prove they are engaged in the learning process  to in order to take advantage of the retake opportunity.  Students must demonstrate that they are working towards objective by completing all required practice work before their first testing opportunity if they are to be allowed another opportunity to prove mastery.  In addition, students only retake the portion of the test the measures the objectives they have not mastered.  So it's important when teachers design their assessments that it is clear what objective each question assesses.

For a while, I was a teacher who offered student partial point back for corrections, but no opportunity for retakes.  I still do allow corrections for partially points back (5%).  I would ask those teachers who allow corrections but don't provide any opportunity for a retake to prove mastery of an objective, "Why?"  I don't think it is asking too much for teachers to give those students who have put in the effort towards mastering the objectives the extra time to meet these objectives.  It is a giant leap towards equity in instruction for all students.

So if students are taking tests and retests, what does this mean for test security?  How many tests does one teacher have to create? I think this leads to a bigger question that I won't be able to address in this blog: What is a good test?   I should probably rephrase that to what is a good summative assessment?

That is the question that has driven my to change my curriculum and the way I assess students on a daily basis, unit basis, and at the end of a course.  This is only the first bite.  So, chew on it for a while.  Spit it out if you must, but think about why you did. Let me know your thoughts in the comments section.

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