Thursday, April 2, 2009

Why Do We Test Students?

After a few recent conversations I thought it was time to address why we test and there are typically many reasons for why we test (educational, psychological, legislative, etc.). At the present time, most educational discussions seem to focus solely on accountability and there are justifiable reasons for that. As long as money is involved, there will always be that argument, but that isn't the purpose of this discussion.

I would really like to get past all of the legislative reasons for conducting testing and return to what I consider is the "core" reason for testing. First of all, it involves an "individual" and a test is simply a point in time reference of a student's ability on a set of predetermined standards/objectives. I think there are two primary views that most people consider when testing and I would hope that we consider both of these views and others when evaluating results:

One view …is to determine whether or not the students have mastered the objectives.
Another View …is to help the student by diagnosing academic weaknesses.

I would also like to add that you should look at trends in test results across all students that will assist an educator in identifying his/her own instructional weaknesses. For example, does your curriculum match up with the specified standards and the high level of thinking in those standards? You can also analyze trends in your results to identify program weaknesses and this could be at the local, district, or state level.

Again, I think the primary goal is on the individual. In other words, how do we help an individual student become as prepared for their future as they can be? I often hear the argument that we should build success into our courses so that students can be successful and that we shouldn't build anything into tests that show what they do not know. Then why test at all? Everyone should have the feeling of success, but a student should know that a test will not only point out what they don't know, but what they DO KNOW. Assessment, in an educational setting, is a form of feedback and it should discriminate, not against individuals, but across variables.

A test should be used as positive feedback. The negative portion of any test, what the student did not know, is simply a means for remediation (for any area of relative weakness). Remediation should involve not only the student, but the instructor and the program. After all, even your best students should have relative weaknesses that need to be addressed. For example, if a student scored 94/100 on an exam, but every question missed was in a specific area, then we shouldn't just hand the results back and say, "Great job!" We should say, "Great Job!' and use positive reinforcment on all the things they do know, but their area of relative weakness should also be addressed.

To briefly summarize, a student will find success on any educational test when their ability and effort are effectively combined with instruction and resources. This is really a fluid equation as one portion of this concept may be weighted more heavily than another and this may effectively offset a weakness in any portion of the equation. The key is to analyze the results from a number of different perspectives and to always ask, "WHY?"

My main point is that many factors contibute to a test score and we should always do our best to analyze the results for each individual student. These factors are both internal and external and please remember that you are assessing "individuals." There are many other things that can affect results that we really haven't touched on such as home environment, socio-economic status, cognitive ability, testing environment, specific learning disabilities, etc.

Our goal is to try and understand "ALL" of the factors that comprise an individual score.

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