School Testing Assesses Knowledge Gains and Gaps

Students Start Summer School In Chicago
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Teachers teach content then test students. This cycle of teaching and testing is familiar to anyone who has been a student. Tests seek to see what students have learned. However, there can be other more complicated reasons as to why schools use tests.

At the school level, educators create tests to measure their students' understanding of specific content or the effective application of critical thinking skills. Such tests are used to evaluate student learning, skill level growth and academic achievements at the end of an instructional period, such as the end of a project, unit, course, semester, program or school year.

These tests are designed as summative assessments.

Summative Tests

According to the Glossary for Educational Reform, summative assessments are defined by three criteria:

  • They are used to determine whether students have learned what they were expected to learn or to level or degree to which students have learned the material.
  • They may be used to measure learning progress and achievement and to evaluate the effectiveness of educational programs. Tests may also measure student progress toward stated improvement goals or to determine student placement in programs. 
  • They are recorded as scores or grades for a student’s academic record for a report card or for admission to higher education.

At the district, state, or national level, standardized tests are an additional form of summative assessments. The legislation passed in 2002 known as the No Child Left Behind Act mandated annual testing in every state. This testing was linked to federal funding of public schools.

The arrival of the Common Core State Standards in 2009 continued state-by-state testing through different testing groups (PARCC and SBAC) to determine student readiness for college and career. Many states have since developed their standardized tests. Examples of standardized tests include the ITBS for elementary students; and for secondary schools the PSAT, SAT, ACT as well as Advanced Placement exams.

Standardized Testing Pros and Cons

Those who support standardized tests see them as an objective measure of student performance. They support standardized testing as a way to hold public schools accountable to the taxpayers who fund the school or as a means to improve the curriculum in the future.

Those opposed to standardized testing see them as excessive. They dislike tests because tests demand time that could be used for instruction and innovation. They claim that schools are under pressure to "teach to the test," a practice that could limit the curricula. Moreover, they argue that non-English speakers and students with special needs may be at a disadvantage when they take standardized tests.

Finally, testing can increase anxiety in some, if not all, students. Dreading a test may be connected to the idea that a test can be a trial by fire: Indeed, the meaning of the word test came from the 14th-century practice of using fire to heat a small earthen pot—called testum in Latin—to determine the quality of precious metal. In this way, the process of testing uncovers the quality of a student's academic achievement.

There are a number of reasons that teachers and school districts administer tests to students.

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Testing Assesses What students Have Learned

The obvious point of classroom testing is to assess what students have learned after the completion of a lesson or unit. When the classroom tests are tied to well-written lesson objectives, a teacher can analyze the results to see where the majority of students did well or need more work. This information may help the teacher create small groups or to use differentiated instructional strategies.

Educators can also use tests as teaching tools, especially if a student did not understand the questions or directions. Teachers may also use tests when they are discussing student progress at team meetings, during student assistance programs or at parent-teacher conferences.

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Testing Identifies Student Strengths and Weaknesses

Another use of tests at the school level is to determine student strengths and weaknesses. One effective example of this is when teachers use pretests at the beginning of units to find out what students already know and figure out where to focus the lesson. There is an assortment of literacy tests that can help target a weakness in decoding or accuracy as well as learning style and multiple intelligences tests to help teachers learn how to meet the needs of their students through instructional techniques.

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Testing Measures Effectiveness

Until 2016, school funding had been determined by student performance on state exams. In a memo in December of 2016, the U.S. Department of Education explained that the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) would require fewer tests. Along with this requirement came a recommendation for the use of tests, which read in part:


"To support State and local efforts to reduce testing time, section 1111(b)(2)(L) of the ESEA allows each State, at its discretion, the option to set a limit on the aggregate amount of time devoted to the administration of assessments during a school year."

This shift in attitude by the federal government came as a response to concerns over the number of hours schools use to specifically teach to the test as they prepare students to take these exams.

Some states already use or plan to use the results of state tests when they evaluate and give merit raises to teachers. This use of high-stakes testing can be contentious with educators who believe they cannot control the many factors (such as poverty, race, language or gender) that can influence a student's grade on an exam.

Additionally, a national test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), is the "largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America's students know and can do in various subject areas," according to the NAEP, which tracks the progress of U.S. students annually and compares the results with international tests.

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Testing Determines Recipients of Awards and Recognition

Tests can be used as a way to determine who will receive awards and recognition. For example, the PSAT/NMSQT is given in the 10th grade to students across the nation. When students become National Merit Scholars due to their results on this test, they are offered scholarships. There are an anticipated 7,500 scholarship winners who may receive $2,500 scholarships, corporate-sponsored awards or college-sponsored scholarships.

The Presidential Youth Fitness Awards Program allows educators to celebrate students for reaching their physical activity and fitness goals.

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Testing Can Provide College Credit

Advanced Placement exams provide students with the opportunity to earn college credit after successfully completing a course and passing the exam with high marks. While every university has its own rules on what scores to accept, they may give credit for these exams. In many cases, students can begin college with a semester or even a year's worth of credits under their belts.

Many colleges offer a dual-enrollment program to high school students who enroll in college courses and receive credit when they pass the exit test or pass the class. According to the Department of Education, dual enrollment is defined as "...students (who) enroll in postsecondary coursework while also enrolled in high school." When students are juniors or seniors, they may have the opportunity to enroll in college courses that are not part of their high school curriculum. Other terms used could be "early college" or "dual credit."

Meanwhile, programs such as the International Baccalaureate (IB) "assess student work as direct evidence of achievement" that students may use in college applications.

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Testing Judges Student Merit for an Internship, Program or College

Tests have traditionally been used as a way to judge a student based on merit. The SAT and ACT are two common tests that form part of a student's entrance application to colleges. Additionally, students might be required to take additional exams to get into special programs or be placed properly in classes. For example, a student who has taken a few years of high school French might be required to pass an exam to be placed in the correct year of French instruction.