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The Power of Curriculum Based Testing

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
Related Tags: Assessment
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As much as I love testing, I can't help feeling that the state testing programs -- on which each state spends millions of dollars -- do not really help the students. It's not that they aren't designed well, nor is it that they are too difficult or too long. The reason they do little to help students is the turn-around time. The test is taken once a year, at the end of the year, and the results do not come until after the students start school the next year. So the turn-around for the test takes a whole year, during which time, the student may or may not get specific feedback and help concerning a test they took a year ago.

For the most part, students know when a test matters and when it doesn't. And the student test scores show this. For example, in Texas, the ninth and tenth grade scores are usually pretty low, but then all of the sudden, the students get smart and the scores go way up when they get in eleventh grade. It so happens in Texas that if they do not pass the eleventh grade test, the students do not graduate. Motivation does wonders for test scores.

School districts have gotten savvy to the game of testing and figure that giving tests that prep students for the big state test will help students do better. Districts have instituted what they call "benchmark" tests to determine student preparedness for the state test. These are often administered once a quarter, or in some cases, monthly. Like the state test, they are not graded and students know that doing well or poorly on the test does not affect their standing in the class. Except for some school districts that target students with interventions based on their benchmark scores, not many changes occur because of the benchmarks. How useful is this?

There are useful tests. They are the ones that teachers make, and are beneficial for students -- not just teachers and administrators. They are called curriculum-based (CBA) tests and they are what teachers should be teaching to.

Are the CBA's perfect? Not hardly. So that is where all of the teacher effort, principal effort and district curriculum effort should go. Rather than spending valuable time on preparing for a minimum standard state or benchmark test, teachers should focus on getting students ready to pass a CBA test.

The Nuts and Bolts of CBA

The ideal teacher test is designed before instruction begins (according to McTighe & Wiggins in Understanding by Design). Each question is correlated to a specific and prioritized student-learning objective, and is designed to be either be easy, medium, or difficult to differentiate the test for all students. The students are given the pre-test before instruction begins, and if all of the students pass with 80 percent or better, then the teacher can compact the curriculum to be taught and then move on to the next unit more quickly.

But, if full instruction is necessary, according to pre-test scores, then the value that the teacher added will be reflected in the post-test scores minus the pre-test scores. Additionally, since both the pre- and the post- test are correlated to the student learning standards, then in rapid fashion, a teacher can identify specific student learning needs in a quick turn-around time, and then re-teach them in a better, more effective way.

This type of ideal test can be time consuming, even though the benefits outweigh the hours spent in creation. One way to mitigate this concern is to allow the ideal tests to be created by a team of teachers, all agreeing to a specific standard for the correlation and the quality of each test item. This method has the effect of holding each of the other test writers accountable for good instruction in their perspective classrooms. It also raises the quality of the tests because more eyes are critically analyzing each test for errors in content and format.

Education author and professor Fenwick English champions that the test that should be "taught to" is the correctly designed and correlated CBA and not the minimum standard state test.

How do you make useful and beneficial CBA's for student?

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Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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Comments (9) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Erica Tso's picture
Erica Tso
Parent of a child with Autism

While completing my student teaching in a junior high school, I witnessed PLCs coming together to form their curriculum-based tests. There were generally four teachers in the PLC, all teaching the same curriculum to students with varying abilities. Because the same content was being taught, the teachers would collaborate and make their tests together. Then, when all stuents had taken the test, they had relisble information abotu their students, what information was retained, and what needed reteaching. For the teachers I worked with, this was ideal. They shared in the test-making process, each making questions, and the same test was distributed to an entire grade to make sure everyone was learning the same conent.

Rio Kirkland's picture

Teaching above the standard is imperative to help the students with maximizing their learning potential. Moreover, collaboration within the department is essential for cohesive teaching, and learning. As a result, the staff should be able to fabricate innovative ideas about testing that pertains to the curriculum. Therefore, the teachers will be able to effectively teach their students about relative information that will enhance their students knowledge, and prepare them for the real life.

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


You got the message. Far too long have teachers taught to the minimum standard. Regular ability and gifted students are bored with school because their is no challenge. It has to change.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Linda's picture

Well written. Teaching to the level of "standard" is not acceptable. Educators today need to present concepts in a manner that will provoke higher level learning, and be applicable in their students' academic careers

Linda's picture

Well written. Teaching to the level of "standard" is not acceptable. Educators today need to present concepts in a manner that will provoke higher level learning, and be applicable in their students' academic careers

Allison's picture
1st Grade Teacher

I like this idea. I would love to be involved in creating curriculum based tests. The teachers are the ones teaching the content so we would be the best at creating the assessments. Each grade level at my school created our weekly benchmark tests for reading and math. We came up with the assessments as a team and every year we change them if needed. We actually grade and record our benchmark scores. They are the most accurate indicators as to how the students are doing. We know each week how the students are doing and what we need to do to help them improve. Creating these curriculum based tests would be time consuming but they would be a more accurate and useful test.

Corey McKinnon's picture
Corey McKinnon
Middle School Teacher from Minnesota

I was fortunate to do my student teaching with one of the most insightful educators I have ever met. His elementary physical education program (along with his coaching abilities at the high school level) are second to none. He begins every physical education unit with some sort of "pretest" that assesses the abilities of the students against some of the highest standards around. His comment to me (and I will never forget it) was "At the beginning of instruction, I am not interested in what my students can do in as much as I am most interested in what they can't do." If every student can throw a ball well, with correct technique, accurate precision, and with some level of velocity, then he would say "Why waste the precious minutes I have with them teaching what they already know?" Your article reminds me of how we, as educators, have to get back to setting high standards for our students while keeping the end in mind. If the end justifies the means, then we have to be very deliberate in raising the bar to the highest level possible so as to afford every student the opportunity to be challenged, improve, and educated in fun and motivating ways. Do you have any specific examples of Curriculum Based Assessments to share? Also, would you recommend patterning CBA's after the style of the state assessments students must pass?

Amanda's picture
High school social studies teacher

I completely agree that students are much more concerned with the tests that give them immediate restults and have some sort of direct affect on them. For example, a few years back before students needed to pass the state math test to graduate, a number of them figured out that if they failed the test three times they wouldn't have to take it anymore. So rather than trying to do well, they simply made it their objective to scribble down some answers quickly and get over with three times so they could forget about it. These students were not shy in telling their teachers straight out that they had no intentions of passing the test. They knew that it didnt' really matter to them in any way. Although extreme, this type of situation is sad.
I am definately a fan of the CBA idea. Figuring out your goals for the test and then teaching to them may be a lot of work, but definately pays off for your students. I agree that this can be best done as a team. The first district I taught in was large and had several teachers focusing on one course. It was great to collaborate and bring in so great content. Unfortunately now I work in an extremely small district. I am the only teacher for three differnt courses, and teach four preps. There is definately not any room for teamwork on the curriculm, nor as much time to focus on one courses content. I am fortunate to have my past experiences to build from; however, sometimes I feel for my students as I don't have as much time to focus soley on their content.

Jenn G.'s picture

I am a elementary science coach and I am in the midst of creating some benchmark assessments for two different schools I work with. My idea of benchmark testing is a little different than what you described above. We use them as a formative assessment piece and a way to identify which standards individual students need extra work on as we get closer to our standardized tests in April. For example, I finished up a third grade earth science benchmark today that teachers will be giving soon. It consists of 25 earth science questions that are rigorous and strongly aligned to the 6 earth science SPI's in the 3rd grade state standards. Once these are graded, teachers will fill out a data sheet on each student, in which they identify which questions the student answered correctly, the percent correct for each SPI and then the percent correct for the entire earth science strand. This will tell them both what the student is, at this point, on par for scoring in April, and also what weaknesses in the SPI's that student may have and will need to focus on yet. As well, the teachers will also fill out a whole class form that will let them see trends in strengths and weaknesses of their class of students as a whole entity. This will allow them to identify standards they will need to make a point to reteach as whole class instruction. For any SPI in which the class average is less than 85%, teachers will be asked to plan their next steps in instruction for how they will re-address that specific standard. Teachers will be encouraged to meet in grade level teams to look at the results and have conversations centered around effective instruction for re-addressing the standards that need it.

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