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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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Andy's picture

I find it difficult to create interesting tests that the students are excited to take (and try their best on). I have especially noticed this since our school has started doing weekly formative assessments. Like you mentioned, the only way that I have been able to do this was through the use of other teachers in our PLC.

April's picture
2nd grade teacher from MN

Thanks for the article. I am a second grade teacher and I currently use very few summative assessments. I am just beginning the process of creating new math tests that fit the needs of my learners, rather than using the book tests. In doing this, I have realized how much of the material isn't really even valid. In the current chapter I am working on, the book test lists some skills that aren't even in the math standards for second grade (mean/median/mode). If these are not standards, but have been taught in the chapter, would you even consider testing them on that skill? To me, I feel that exposure would be the best way to go-- teach/reteach and move on with no testing. I feel like I have to at least touch on it, as it's the curriculum chosen by out district. Thoughts?

Heather's picture

This was an interesting article. I am a fourth grade teacher and the tests I primarily give are Math tests. I have often thought that the math series that my district has provided has lots of trick questions on the tests that has tripped up students at all levels. It frustrates them and it really frustrates me! After reading this article though I feel like I have to take a look at those trick questions in a new light. The author points out that we can't get rid of them. As a result I think I need to look at my instruction and that leads me to this question: How can I best prepare students in the math lessons I present to be ready for these distractors, misleading answers and trick questions?

Kirby VanDeWalker's picture

It is disappointing to hear that your teacher only gives praise to the student who receives 100% efficiency on their tests. 100% may be a great goal for that person, but for a struggling student may be the benchmark for them is 75%? That deserves praise, too.

I also think going back to the test to see where you went wrong and why you went wrong is beneficial. You are correct, students learn more when they do that. Assessments need to be written in a clear manner, provide a variety of questions (binary vs. multiple choice), and not try to trick students.

I can recall my 7th grade science teacher who gave us a test once. On the test there was a true-false section. The teacher made all of the statements be true. I remember thinking to myself while taking the test that I had all of the statements answered as true. But then on the last question I told myself, "They can't all be true." So, I changed the last one to false and got it wrong! When we went over the test the next day, the teacher explained I wanted to see if you really new all of the material so I made them all true. Well, in my mind he tricked us, because there was never a test before that where all the true-false statements were true.

You wrote that we cannot do away with distractors, misleading questions, or trick questions because they help make the test more difficult. In my opinion, if you want to make the test more difficult, then have questions mixed in where it required higher-order thinking in order to successfully answer the questions. Instead of having questions that only assess knowledge and simple understanding, mix in some questions that assess application or deep understanding. Do you agree with this?

Gayle's picture

You have written an interesting and informative description of testing. I often used to write trick questions on my tests; however, I've been working towards eliminating those questions. As a teacher of Spanish, many of my trick questions would catch the native speakers in my class. I now am working towards differentiating my tests by giving a different test to the native speakers. I let the native speakers in my class know that their version is different, but designed to be fairer to them. I haven't pointed out the differences to the rest of the students. If we focus on the goal of having students master the material and show that mastery, we can get away from tricking them on tests. When I give my students time to go back to their tests and reflect on their errors, I find that many don't care. Have you found any ways to help students reflect and learn from their errors on assessments?

Melaine's picture
Second grade teacher from Minneapolis, MN

Thank you for your insight! I am currently working on creating better assessments for my students in Reading and Math. The assessments that the textbook series provide are filled with trick questions and content that was barely covered in class. Many of the questions are not aligned with the state standards. Instead of throwing those questions out, I do feel my students should be exposed to content that isn't part of the second grade standards.
I completely agree that collaborating with colleagues is the best way to create valid assessments. It helps to have several eyes looking over the test. I happen to teach in one of the small schools you mentioned in your article. I am the only second grade teacher. This does give me the freedom to make many changes to the curriculum, but it is difficult to find the time to make all of the changes necessary. Do you have any practical application tips for beginning to rewrite Math and Reading assessments without a team of colleagues? Where is the best place to start, and what changes would be the most important to make? At this point, the provided assessments are not differentiated and I would like to begin there. Thank you.

E Bryson's picture

As a fifth grade teacher I have started to rely mostly on formative assessments in math and throw a lot of the built-in curriculum assessments out the window because they don't assess what the students have just practiced, and often the questions are vague or intentionally misleading. But then comes spring-time, and suddenly I feel the need to be sure my students have seen multiple choice formats and had practice answering the types of questions they'll be seeing on the high stakes tests. This usually results in a frantic compilation of curriculum resources, sample items from the internet, and a few of my own questions. The goal of these assessments feels less like an opportunity to assess student knowledge and more a chance to expose the students to the testing format they will see from the state. Clearly, this is a waste of time - both mine and my students'.
Very slowly I am revising assessments. Up until this point I had discounted the value of multiple-choice and other selected response items figuring that if a student could work a math problem and come up with the correct answer, surely they could match up their answer with an item on a MC test. I've also tried to reinforce this process with my students - work the problem, then choose an answer; however, many selected response questions can be answered through elimination and reasoning. I am coming to understand the difference of cognitive processes that can occur by providing answers to choose from. Do you recommend that a certain portion of a summative assessment be short answer / extended response vs. selected-response?

Jen Stewart's picture

I am a kindergarten teacher, and I have recently been thinking about how to bring more differentiation into my math curriculum. With this, I realize that I will need to look at designing better tests. The challenge I have is that I am one of the teachers who works in a small school. Do you have any suggestions for the teacher who only has one grade level colleague to work with?

Alizabeth's picture

All teachers know that "time" is something we could never have enough of. Creating assessments take up a large portion of our time. Collaborating is a great tool to help eliminate the stress of creating assessments. Unfortunately, working in a small district and being the only grade level teacher does not allow for such collaboration. Do know any great sites that have challenging test questions created? Do you know any internet programs that allow students to take tests and get the results immediately?

Sonja's picture

I agree that teachers should differentiate the instruction in the classrooms as well as on tests. How do you create assessments that incorporate challenging questions with out "tricking" students, specifically English Language Learners? I like the idea taking a summative test and letting the students see what they did wrong and retaking it. It allows them to see what they need to work on. Maybe the students really did know the answer, but the wording was difficult for them.

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