Five Ways to Make Your Bad Tests Even Worse

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I think nearly everyone can agree that the amount and the quality of testing we subject students to is a little bit crazy right about now. I’m keenly aware of the standardized testing mess, and I’m fairly confident that the light cast upon it from every corner of the world will keep it at the center of our efforts to improve schooling experiences for some time. This is important, but I’m wondering if the conversation needs to expand just a bit further.

For instance, at what point will the same light be cast upon locally designed tests and testing practices?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m impressed by the number of parents and educators I know who are troubled enough by the state of standardized testing to raise their voices for change. What troubles me is that most of these same people have little, if anything, to say about the quality of the tests that kids are taking every single day inside of their classrooms.

The fact is that many local assessments are poorly designed, and the results of those assessments influence grade point averages significantly. I’d love to think that a kid’s GPA doesn’t matter, because in this day and age, it shouldn’t. But it does. In fact, it matters a great deal. Grade point averages influence local placement decisions, scholarship awards, and entrance into college. And as long as this is our reality, we must take care to ensure that the tests we create and the grades they produce are of the highest quality.

Like many parents and teachers, I dream of world where grades have no bearing and assessment is a verb instead of a noun. More than that, I believe we can make this happen, and it’s important that all of us contribute to the change. But right now, tests are still a reality for most. If we’re giving them, we need to ask ourselves if we’re contributing to the testing mess we so often complain about. Consider these common offenses.

Five Ways to Make Your Bad Tests Even Worse:

1. Use a calendar rather than readiness to determine the timing of your test.

I know that the breadth of curricula each teacher is expected to address in a given year remains an ongoing debacle. This is why it’s so important to check for understanding during every lesson and consistently engage learners in reflection. The sooner we know when learners are off track and the more we come to know about why, the better our interventions will be. Ongoing formative assessment and targeted feedback helps us monitor  and build readiness for the test. We’re also better able to adjust our timing.

2. Fail to align the curriculum you teach with the curriculum you test.

Do you employ a backward design process when constructing lessons and units? If so, your curriculum is probably more likely to align to your assessments–including your tests. If not, you may want to consider it. Kids can’t be tested on things they haven’t been taught. They also can’t be tested on content or skills that they haven’t had abundant opportunities to study and practice.

3. Use lousy scoring tools in damaging ways.

Do you keep the criteria you are using to score your tests secret? Do you fail to provide rubrics that learners understand? Are they vague? Do you confuse them with checklists? Are they employed exclusively for evaluative purposes? If you want to serve students well, you’ll need to clean up your definition of what a rubric really is and your practice.

4. Fail to provide feedback or allow revision.

Most teachers give tests in order to evaluate mastery. Imagine what might happen if you tested in order to identify strengths and needs prior to supporting ongoing growth? Grades don’t promote learning or improve performance. Feedback does. So does revision. Make both a part of your testing practice and pay attention to how they influence learning.

5. Make it a race: require far too many items for the amount of time provided.

One minute per multiple choice question assigned. One minute per point assigned to a constructed response question. These are great rules of thumb, and I’m grateful to Jennifer Borgioli for sharing them with me earlier this month. Are you giving learners this kind of time? If not, it’s time!

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A former English teacher, Angela Stockman is the founder of the WNY Young Writer's Studio, a community of writers and teachers of writing in Buffalo, New York. She is also an education consultant with expertise in curriculum design, instructional coaching, and assessment. Read more from Angela at

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