Testing blues

I’m feeling really frustrated. I thought the students were following along in my first unit, but I am really disappointed in the test results. What can I do differently in the next unit?
—Lisa, Topeka, Kansas

The first unit is the toughest one. You’re learning about your students’ capabilities and background knowledge, and they’re learning about your expectations and requirements.
If the purpose of your test is to just record a grade for the students, it can be tempting to “curve” scores so more students receive a passing grade. It might also be tempting to assume students just blew off the test. But neither of these solutions addresses the issue of student learning.
Look at the test itself. How well do the items reflect the concepts and processes in the unit’s learning objectives? If you used a test from a previous year or one from the textbook, you might have to modify the number and types of questions if you emphasize different topics, expand on a topic based on student interest or needs, or cut some topics short in the interest of time. One of my favorite strategies was to ask the students, “What did you learn in this unit that I forgot to ask on the test?” It was interesting to see what students found memorable or relevant.
Are any items ambiguous or confusing, especially from the students’ perspective? This can be hard to determine; if the test had a lot of multiple-choice or short answers, I usually asked students to circle three items (the number could vary) they did not want me to count. They still had to answer the question, and they had to explain why they circled it. In some cases, they admitted they didn’t know the answer; other times they did not understand how the question was worded, and sometimes there were words in the question they did not understand. As I graded the tests, I kept a tally of the circled items. If any item had a lot of circles, it was a clue something was missing during instruction or I had written a poor question.
You said “I thought the students were following along…” Do you have any evidence of student learning during the unit? Formative assessments are ongoing, classroom level assessments used to discover what students are learning so we can move on (if students have learned a topic) or revisit our instruction to correct misconceptions or fill in gaps. These focused check-ups can provide just-in-time information during the lesson and can have many formats: frequent thumbs-up/down responses, a notebook/journal entry, warm-up or ticket-out-the-door activities, quick responses on a dry erase board or piece of paper, or electronic response systems. Even traditional quizzes and lab reports can be used formatively, assuming we provide feedback on the students’ learning (more than just a grade or percent correct) and use the results to improve or validate our instruction. (See the Ms. Mentor blog from September 2008 for more examples and resources).
Finally, do your students know how to study for a test? We often assume, especially at the secondary level, students have a wide range of study skills and they know how and when to use them. These can be faulty assumptions! We may need to guide students through note-taking and review. The generic “study skills” students were exposed to—skimming, summarizing, questioning, highlighting—may have to be revisited and fine-tuned for your subject or grade level. There are teachers who reinforce the value of having organized notes by encouraging students to use their science notebooks for a few minutes during (or at the end of) a test to find or check their answers.
I’d love to hear from you at the end of your next unit!

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