How Tests Help Improve Teaching and Learning

This summer, Commissioner McQueen is sharing some of her thoughts about assessment and what she has heard and learned from educators, parents, and students. This is the second post in this series. You can read the first one here.

By Candice McQueen, Tennessee Commissioner of Education

Most of us agree that checking to see what students are grasping and retaining is a critically important part of the teaching and learning cycle. We often call these checks “tests” or “assessments.” In today’s education conversation these words carry a lot of weight – in fact, they can also carry a lot of “baggage” as they say – and we can lose sight of the reasonable goal of tests and the variety of necessary roles that they play.

There are two main types of assessment: formative and summative. I want to spend some time on formative assessments in this post, and I’ll dig into summative assessments, including state tests, more next time.

Why Test? Broadly speaking, teachers need to know what students are learning and understanding. That feedback helps them tailor day-to-day instruction, determine if some students are falling behind or if others are ready to move forward, and gives them a sense of what teaching practices are effective with their class. Often, this feedback is something they reflect on to strengthen how they teach, or they go over the results with another educator or parent to determine different approaches or strategies that ultimately will help each student achieve his or her fullest potential. Without some form of assessment, we would not know what students have grasped, which students need additional support, or see how much they’ve learned over a relatively short period of time.

Tests that serve these purposes are called formative assessments. These may be formal moments, like taking a chapter test, using a screening exam, writing an essay, or turning in a project. They may be pop quizzes or group activities. Those are the assessments most of us think of when we think of testing.

But tests may also be casual moments, such as when a teacher polls the class to check for understanding, or when she meets with students and asks them to demonstrate key concepts or explain why a conclusion they reached about a passage of text makes sense. Sometimes formative assessments can be nerve-racking events, like when a student models how to solve a problem on the white board or sits for a unit test, or a student may not even realize they are being tested, like when they give the thumbs up to show they understand or when they share something they learned with their teacher on the way out the classroom door. All of these moments provide teachers and often parents with feedback they need to support students’ success.

Assessments also help students themselves take ownership over their education. When a student takes a test, often they learn how they learn – like which studying strategies worked or didn’t, and if they remember the information better if they watch a video, listen to a lesson, or read a passage. They figure out which notetaking skills work for them. When they get feedback from their assessments, they can see both how those learning skills are developing as well as specific areas of weakness or strength. Students also develop persistence and resiliency as they try again to master a concept or when they tutor a classmate who is having trouble grasping the material – all of which are skills we use for the rest of our lives.

Teacher and student work together on a concept.Formative tests tend to feel more useful because they are typically more immediately actionable. If a student demonstrates a struggle with adding fractions, diagramming a sentence, or articulating how the water cycle works, a teacher and parent can step in right away to help. The student can be retaught or redirected toward the learning goal with additional checks for understanding built in along the route to mastery. However, the vast majority of the tests that students experience throughout the school year are formative assessments – which are not required by the state. The volume of formative assessments contributes to the feeling of overtesting, and in response, the state’s Assessment Task Force outlined key principals and recommendations on formative assessments, including recommending that school districts reduce formative assessments that do not guide decision-making and next steps in instruction.

Clearly, formative assessments play an important role in giving insight and knowledge to educators, students, and parents. So, why don’t we only use formative assessments in the teaching and learning cycle? The answer is because at some point, student understanding must be “tested” in a more summative fashion to see if knowledge has been retained and can be applied. These summative tests – created by teachers, district staff, and even textbook companies – also show whether the student has reached overall mastery on a set of criteria or benchmarks for a unit of study or grade level expectations. Summative assessments, like formative assessments, are critical too, as they serve yet another important role in giving feedback about student readiness and understanding.

Educators celebrating a students' progress.But just like all of the most important areas of our lives – like our health, or buying a house, or making a major change – education is so important that we want to give students and families multiple and varied feedback and perspectives. We want all families to feel confident in the education their child is receiving, not simply because they trust their child’s teacher, but because they can see from a big-picture perspective that their student is ready for the next step in their education journey. That’s where summative assessments – including state tests – come into play. I look forward to sharing more about the purpose of state tests and their big-picture benefits in my next post.