Thursday, December 1, 2011

Understanding the “Depth” of Testing

What do you think are good synonyms for the word “test?” Evil, horrible, despicable…should I add more? I get those comments and more from a wide variety of people and groups. I sometimes feel hated as I can almost feel the knives in my back, but to be honest with all of you, testing really is a good thing!

For testing to be considered a good thing, we have to consider much more than just the test score. Just as in the picture on the right, the “Test Score” is only the tip of the iceberg, underpinned by “Program Improvement,” “Instructor Improvement,” and at its greatest depth, “Individual Student Improvement.” Without the “Individual Student Improvement,” evaluation of the “Test Score” is not totally meaningful or useful.

The “Test Score,” or the tip of the iceberg, is actually comprised of many factors such as:
  • Reliability and validity of the test itself
  • Intellectual functioning
  • Genetics programming
  • Maturational status
  • Environmental influences
  • Personality, social, and gender influences
  • Education and training
  • Life and work experiences
  • Testing environment
  • Examiner characteristics
The score is also important to many different stakeholders and therefore, there are 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 what I consider testing in its “purest” theoretical form (more about the “purest” form later).

Just under the waterline on the iceberg is “State Improvement” or program improvement. Test scores, when aggregated and analyzed across a state or geographical area, can lead to overall program improvement. In order to use scores in a valid way to make decisions about students or programs, we must also remember that we must clearly define and measure the psychological/educational constructs or traits that a test purports to measure. Once this is accomplished, there are several things that we can analyze at this level such as whether the curriculum matches up with the specified state standards and the high level of thinking in those standards? If not, should a different curriculum be used or should the existing curriculum be revised? Should professional development be implemented across the state to ensure that the standards are being adequately addressed?

The next thing we should consider is “Instructor Improvement.” Has the instructor addressed all of the standards during instruction or has the curriculum been fully utilized? Does the instructor utilize effective teaching methods? As long as the tests are aligned with the standards then the instructor can aggregate and analyze their own student’s scores and improve their own instructional performance. This level could also encompass the local school site and the administrator could make recommendations for improvement across grade-level or academic area.

We now find ourselves at the greatest depth of the iceberg…“Individual Student Improvement.” This is what I consider the “purest” reason for assessing students. First and foremost a test involves an "individual" and it is simply a point in time reference of a student's ability on a set of predetermined standards/objectives. The “individual” is where we, at times, tend to lose our focus, but we should be mindful that preparing a student for education, the workplace, and for life is our goal and the reason for instruction and assessment.

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 individual results:

One view …is to determine whether or not the students have mastered the objectives.

Another View …is to identify individual relative strengths and weaknesses and to help the student by building upon relative strengths and by remediating relative weaknesses.

In other words, how do we help an individual student become as prepared for their future as they can be? Testing can be a difficult thing for a student as the results will demonstrate the concepts that they could not recall, did not understand or did not know. Test anxiety can also be a factor that affects performance, but we should communicate that most students will have an area of relative weakness and that a test not only points out what they don't know, but what they DO KNOW. After all, even your best students may demonstrate an area of relative weakness. For example, if a student scored 94/100 on an exam, but every question missed was in a specific area, then we should never just hand the results back and say, "Great job!" We should say, "Great Job!' and use positive reinforcement as we address their area of relative weakness. Assessment, in an educational setting, is a form of important feedback and it should discriminate, not against individuals, but across variables as we seek to maximize their learning.

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?" We should always analyze the results and use the information to modify our instruction according to a student's needs. We should never receive an individual student's test score and just file it away.

My main point is that many internal and external factors (home environment, socio-economic status, genetics, cognitive ability, testing environment, specific learning disabilities, etc.) contribute to a test score and we should always do our best to analyze the results for each individual student.

Our goal is to try and understand "ALL" of the factors that comprise an individual score and to maximize each and every student’s learning experience.

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