Testing, Testing, I

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! Today’s post, as you’ve probably guessed, is about testing in several senses of the word. Monday marks the end of our first reporting period in my face-to-face teaching world, so it’s an appropriate time to pause and give students (and teachers) an opportunity to see how well they’ve done with the important Knowledge, Skills, and Understandings presented in each class during those first 4 ½ weeks of school. For many of my colleagues, this means they “have to give a test” – or in some cases, several tests.

For some reason, we teachers often have love-hate relationships with tests … even with the tests we ourselves write and administer to our students. I think of a former colleague I’ll call Mrs. Y … as in, “Y R U doing this?” I once had a conversation with her at the photocopier that went something like this:

Mrs. Y:  I’m so disgusted and angry. [sadly, Mrs. Y often opened conversations like that.  She was clearly a happy, positive person who loved her life, wasn’t she? :-)]

Me:  What’s wrong? [sadly, I had not yet learned to avoid negative people who wanted to vent.  I also had not yet learned that some people genuinely want to be unhappy, and sometimes you should just get out of their way and let them.]

Mrs. Y:  Well, I have to give them a test today, and they’re all going to fail.

Me:   You know they’re all going to fail?

Mrs. Y:  Yes.

Me: So, why are you giving the test today?

Of course, I’ve also been like Mrs. Y a few times … that is, I’ve certainly given the occasional test for which I thought some of my students weren’t quite ready. Perhaps I just wanted a quiet, peaceful day, or I wanted to “send a message” to my students that they needed to do their work. But I think Mrs. Y genuinely felt that she “had to” give that test that day, even though she already knew (and admitted) that none of her students were prepared to do well on the test. I hope I haven’t ever done that!

Back before the advent of state-created tests for “core” high-school subjects, another former colleague, long retired, used to give three tests in a row on the last three days of school. First she gave a “nine-weeks test,” which included all the new concepts from the fourth grading period. The next day, without going over the answers or doing any additional work with her students, she gave a “semester exam,” which included all the concepts from the second half of the course. And then, of course, she gave a cumulative “final exam,” which included everything. When I asked her about the logic for this process, she claimed that her students “needed” the three tests in a row “to help them review what they learned.” Of course, they never saw their scores on the previous tests before they took the new ones, so I’m not sure how much help the tests actually provided; they did have the advantage of keeping her students quiet and busy at a time when they might otherwise have been a bit boisterous. Perhaps that was the real point of the three tests in a row?

Ironically, some recent research summarized in this New York Times article partly supported my former colleague’s commitment to testing in this way. It seems that practice tests actually do increase retention, at least of knowledge-level information, and it turns out that practice opportunities involving multiple skills and concepts work even better than those that focus only on a single skill or procedure. I think I owe Mrs. X an apology for some of the uncharitable thoughts that crossed my mind two decades ago!

On the other hand, does a test always have to be a test? In other words, what is the proper place of large, written, individually-administered assessments in a given teaching-and-learning environment? I doubt that there’s a single right answer to that question – so much depends on the needs and preferences of the school, the teacher, the students, and their families, not to mention the structure of the class itself and of the academic discipline involved.

When I was a young teacher, I was a firm believer in “tests at the end of every chapter.” In the course of a reporting period like the one we just finished, when my Latin I students usually work with 4-6 chapters of their “Big Three” reading-method Latin textbook, I would have given three or four “big” tests, lots of smaller quizzes, and a “huge” end-of-reporting-period cumulative test. We also would have done a complicated test-correction procedures for each “big” test, and we’d start the new reporting period by repeating that procedure for the “huge” cumulative exam. That process worked well for my students for a long time – they especially liked the fact that the test wasn’t the end of the learning, and that they could actually learn from their mistakes and shortcomings through the correction process.

These days, I still give a couple of “big” tests each reporting period, and we still follow the correction process, which I can describe in more detail next week if you lectōrēs fidēlissimī are interested. I also give a midterm and a final examination, which are required by the school and the district. At the end of a reporting period like this one, though, I find it a lot more helpful to use an interactive and dynamic summative task rather than a static and written one for several reasons:

First, my students don’t do their best work when they’re overwhelmed and exhausted … and many of them are overwhelmed and exhausted at the end of the first reporting period. Their other teachers tend to “pile on” projects, tests, and other large tasks at the end of the reporting period, and many of them also have jobs, significant family responsibilities, and other non-school commitments that take a significant amount of time and energy. Why give a test for test’s sake that doesn’t accurately measure what they know and can do?

Second, at this early point in the course I’m as interested in the process my students use as I am in the final product. When they’re constructing Latin sentences, I want to know what they’re thinking about – are they choosing words randomly? Do they understand the connection between a given noun or verb form and its function? And when they’re reading for comprehension, I want to know how comfortable they are with the vocabulary of a passage, with the structure of a sentence, and with the relationship, say, between a question I’ve asked and the text where the answer can be found. A typical test will show me the product of students’ thoughts, but it won’t show me the process. I’d really like to be able to look into their heads as they’re producing the product …and I’ve finally found a way to do something like that. To keep this post from getting too long, I’ll tell you all about it on Monday!

quid respondētis, amīcī?

  • What do you think about testing and learning?
  • How did you respond to that article I mentioned earlier?
  • What’s the proper role of testing in your face-to-face teaching-and-learning world?

Tune in next time, when we’ll explore my alternative process and product in more detail. intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

Published in: on September 25, 2010 at 5:51 pm  Leave a Comment  
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