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How to Design Better Tests for Students

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
Related Tags: Assessment, All Grades
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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.

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Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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Comments (36) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Cdettlaff's picture
Reading and math specialist

I enjoyed this post. I believe a lot of teachers are looking for better ways to design tests for their students. It takes a lot of time and effort to create assessments but it will be well worth it in the end. I agree that I never had any training or classes on how to create assessments in college until grad school. I think we forget that this is an important part of teaching and we are not properly preparing our teachers for this. When creating an assessment what are the steps you take in this process? This is something I am still working on as well.

Tina's picture

Interesting blog! I agree that if we are going to use tests that we need to make them beneficial. I like that you addressed how it takes time to make good assessments and time is valuable to teachers. I agree that it is worth the time to make them and it is very valuable to work with your colleagues so that you have more minds working together. It does, however, still take time. Whether you do it alone or with a group it still takes time which is sometimes hard to find! It is definitely a better use of time though when you work with others and you without a doubt get more out of your time!

Romona's picture
Middle School Math Teacher

I would agree that preparing a great summative test is very time consuming, but well worth it for the students and the teachers. I have recently been thinking about all the testing that takes place in a school and that it must be very overwhelming for students. I am proposing to my collegues and we should prepare just a few great summative tests throughout the year and then use many different types of formative assesments throughout the unit so that we can make sure students are on track and identify any shifts in the instruction that need to take place. Too much testing seems detrimental to me and overwhelming and frustrating for students, so I am just trying to find a better way. If anyone has ideas, I would love to hear them.

I am in total agreement that our tests should not in any way try to trick the students. I my mind as teachers we should be trying to help the students build their confidence with the concepts being taught, and not trying and sneak a tricky question in a test in hopes that they get it wrong. Questions that engage the students and make them think and connect the concept taught is what I strive for.

katiek's picture

I am glad to read about other music teachers who are having difficulty coming up with sumative as well as formative ways of assessing their students. When you see so many students, 600, and for short periods of time, so much of my assesing is through observation and very little pencil and paper testing. I agree with Kylene, however, that observation is not enough. How can i truely know if they are understanding much less mastering a concept? As the only music specialist in my school, I have no peers to really work with on building assesment tests. I am curious what sources are out there for developing valid assesments for music classes, be it summative or formative.

Tina's picture
Grade 10 and 11 Developmental English teacher

I think the idea of collaborating to create summative tests is a great idea. I am the only teacher in my department who teaches developmental classes. I do feel that it would be beneficial for me to collaborate with the traditional English teachers as well since they too have some struggling students in their classes. However, as stated , time is an issue. I don't have enough time to collaborate with my team teachers let alone with other grade 10 teachers in my department. Short answer questions and essay questions always are the most challenging for my students yet I believe it is important to have the students provide some written responses on the end of the unit tests. In place of a traditional end of the unit test, is there a way to accuately assess what students have learned by using shorter more frequent assessments? My classes are mostly made up of Special Education and ELL students who typically struggle on tests and quizzes. Any alternative suggestions would be helpful.

Lisa's picture

Interesting blog! The point you made about trick questions on assessments was interesting to me. I often feel that my students are being tricked on summative assessments provided by our district. I also agree that creating good summative assessments is time consuming. Collaboration with team members is a must!

betzold's picture
Eighth grade math teacher from Jamestown, ND

I have a question after reading this quote from your blog:
"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!"

How do you feel about allowing students to make test corrections to earn half credit? Since I am in the middle school setting, a student's grade in 8th grade does not reflect their GPA when they graduate. This being the case, I allow students to make corrections to anything they got wrong on a test to earn half of their points back. Like you said, you feel like you retain more after you go back and figure out why you did something wrong. So do you feel it is right allowing test corrections in the middle school classroom? Anyone feel free to comment please, thanks!

Jen's picture
High School Math Teacher, Minnesota

I couldn't help but think of a college professor who would put one question on every tests, near the end, that had NOTHING to do with the unit we were studying. There was no way to be prepared for it, and usually, no way we could get it right. He took pride in the statement he reiterated on a regular basis: No one has ever gotten 100% on one of my tests.
I appreciate the last section about collaborating with colleagues - not only for the time management piece, but also for the consistency in classes and the "double checking" factor. When I was in school I never turned a paper in without having someone proof-read for's something I still should be doing!
The idea of having my high school students "excited" about a test blows my mind - I can barely get them to remember that they have a test on a certain day (even after a week of test preparation, frequent oral reminders, and having it written in bright colors on my board!). How do you prepare kids for their tests? DO you do a review the day before? Perhaps a project reviewing topics contained in the unit before the assessment?

jamelle's picture

I think high quality tests are necessary as well. I figure why give a test if it isn't going to provide any important information to me regarding what my students really understand. I liked your points about using different types of questions. And I am kind of on the fence when it comes to tricky type questions. I think if you include a couple of those kind of questions, it gives you a good idea of which students have that higher level of understanding. I do feel, however that we should be trying to help students, not trick them. In first grade we don't take grades on daily work. We have a standardized report card. On all assignments I give, including assessments, I let my students make corrections. This also shows me who may need additional reteaching of certain skills. I don't know how I feel about letting students make corrections for half credit in the upper grades. I am thinking maybe an additional assignment could be given to see if the students gained any more understanding of that certain skill. Maybe make this assignment available to all students as well. Giving half credit tell some students that to be average they really don't have to study, because they are always going to get a second chance. I think we need to up the rigor.

Kristi B.'s picture
Kristi B.
7th Grade Science Teacher St. Paul, MN

I think that is a great idea to allow students to retest several times. Sometimes in my own classroom, I have found students who often get 100% get questions wrong only because they misunderstood the question or got 'tricked' or 'distracted' as you mentioned that tests often do. Having those retesting opportunities is a great way to avoid those common mistakes that didn't really assess whether or not a student understood the information, but rather 'caught that student' with the trick. Being flexible with assessments is the biggest thing we can do. I can't count how many times I have had students see their test and clarify a question they got wrong with me afterwards and explain they knew it the whole time (as I saw in my summative assessments). Providing opportunities to 'fix' those common testing errors will allow you to see if students are struggling with the question or the concept.

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