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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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How to Design Better Tests for Students

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

I am taking a class with Cisco Networking this summer, and we are doing the equivalent of a semester of a high school course in one week. We spend two hours listening to a lecture of the key points, and then we take a test. In order to continue in the program, we have to pass the test with an 85 percent effort. Talk about high stakes!

When I was taking the tests, I noticed something. Because we often studied the chapter the night before, you would think the tests would be easy for us, but some of the questions on the test are designed to trick you into selecting the wrong answer. So even though I'm well versed in the material, and it is fresh in my mind, I still have yet to ace one of the tests. (Grrr.)

Although I am passing them reasonably well -- some just barely -- it is frustrating to not get it perfect. The fact that others are struggling too, helps, but the one student in the class who gets 100 percent gets open congratulations and a silent "I'll catch you yet!"

Anyway, this got me thinking. If we want to test a student's knowledge, shouldn't we just straight out ask the question? Is it necessary to throw in distractors, misleading answers, and ones close to the right answer, but not quite? Is that fair?

Hold that thought. I remember taking an assessment-design class in college and saying to myself, "What teacher is going to have time to make all these test questions and design a scientific pretest and posttest for every unit?" I have since discovered the answer to this question: I didn't make time, nor do many other teachers.

Another question, then: If valid assessment is so important, how do you do this? Before I answer that, let's go back to my other thought.

Differentiate Test Questions

Distractors, misleading answers, and trick questions are important in establishing level of difficulty; we can't get rid of them! Remember, we have to differentiate our instruction, so why not our tests, too?

Another reason is that there are two types of tests: summative and formative. One of the safety nets of my Cisco class is that our instructor gives us three chances to take the test. After taking each exam, we can look at the right answers and figure out what we did wrong and then take it again.

This is the main characteristic of formative assessment -- a chance to reflect, and then try again. When I go back and figure out how I blew the question, I actually learn more. It sticks in my brain better!

Back in my college assessment-design class, I learned that there need to be some easy questions, some challenging questions, and some hard questions on each test. A sophisticated teacher will assign different point values for each. A more sophisticated teacher will make sure each question is also aligned with a state standard (but that is a conversation for another day).

Anyway, the struggling student will most likely get the easy questions correct, while the advanced student will be challenged with the hard ones. Both feel that the test has made them stretch, and both can feel success in the questions they answered correctly.

Collaborate with Colleagues

How can we find time to create these tests? The way to find the time to do this is simple (unless you teach in a small school where you are the only teacher at your grade level and are willing to give up your summer vacation time to redo all of your tests by mining the textbooks and the Internet). You work with your teacher peers and come up with the tests -- pretests and posttests -- together. You share ideas, and you design a better mousetrap -- I mean test -- as a group.

Now if you consider the sophistication mentioned above, you all will be able to gather valuable student information that helps you compare teaching performance and predict student performance on state testing.

Some other time-saving tools for designing tests are turning to question-item banks, using Scantron answer sheets, and employing online test-taking tools. The key factor is that if a test is made with the collaboration of colleagues, it will surely be a better product, more useful, and, overall, less time consuming for the teacher.

We can't expect students to spend several hours studying each night and be excited about taking tricky tests, but we can challenge them with well-designed and useful assessments so they can learn and experience successes from meeting the challenges. Please share with us how you like to challenge and excite your students with difficult exams and quizzes.

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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