School Testing Assesses Knowledge Gains and Gaps

School exams assess knowledge gains and gaps

Students Start Summer School In Chicago
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 Teachers teach content, then teachers test.  

Teach, test...repeat.  

This cycle of teaching and testing is familiar to anyone who has been a student, but why is testing even necessary?  

The answer seems obvious: to see what students have learned. However, this answer is more complicated with multiple 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 designed as summative assessments.  

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 report card or for admission to a 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 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB)  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) in order to determine student readiness for college and career.  Many states have since developed their own 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.

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 schools. They support the use of the data from standardized testing to improve 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 curriculum. 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." The meaning of the word test came from the 14th Century practice of using fire to heat a small earthen pot called testum (Latin) in order to determine the quality of a precious metal. In this way, the process of testing uncovers the quality of a student's academic achievement.

Specific reasons to undergo such testing include the following listed below.

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To assess 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 ​effectively written lesson objectives, a teacher can analyze the results to see where the majority of students did well or need more work. These tests are also important when discussing student progress at parent-teacher conferences.

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To identify 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 in order to find out what students already know and figure out where to focus the lesson. Further, learning style and multiple intelligences tests help teachers learn how to best meet the needs of their students through instructional techniques.

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To measure effectiveness

Until 2016, school funding had been determined by student performance on state exams.

In a memo in December of 2016, the US 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 effective tests.

"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 is 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 the teachers themselves. This use of high-stakes testing can be contentious with educators who believe they cannot control the many factors influence a student's grade on an exam.

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

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To determine 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 often 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 $2500 scholarships, corporate-sponsored scholarships, or college-sponsored scholarships.

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For 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 are able to 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.

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To judge 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 in order to be placed in the correct year of French instruction.

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