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Strategies to promote the formative use of tests

Making formative use of national tests

Making formative use of national tests has two aspects: preparing students for the test and making use of the test results.

Preparing students for the test involves ensuring that students have the necessary skills, knowledge and understanding to cope with the demands of the test, and also ensuring their familiarity with the testing genre. This involves an understanding of the structure and language features of the test (the use of bold, italics, layout, recognition of types of test items, key vocabulary), strategies for tackling particular types of questions (eg multiple choice) and skimming and scanning.

Making use of results from national testing

Look first at the skills, knowledge and understanding that the individual test items purport to be testing, and then examine the statistical data which summarises student performance. Identified trends in performance - for example, evidence that a significant number of students experience difficulty making inferences - can be used in a formative way to determine future teaching.

Although now superseded by the advent of national tests, the 2005 booklet LaN in focus, Teaching and learning English literacy skills, produced by the Department of Education and Children’s Services of South Australia, demonstrates how teachers make use of test results in this way. See bibliography for details.

Making formative use of classroom tests

How much formative use can be made of a written test depends on the quality of the test design. Where a test makes a number of different and escalating cognitive demands of students, the information thus gained about student skills, knowledge and understanding will be more sophisticated.

Before the test

Consider the timing. Tests administered at the beginning of a unit, for example, can be an accurate way of determining exactly what students already know and are able to do. This information is then used to shape the approach to the teaching of the topic and, in particular, to identify a starting point for further learning.

A test mid-way through a unit is another way tests can be used by both students and teachers for assessment for learning purposes. Gaps in understanding are revealed in a timely fashion, allowing teachers to focus teaching to fit student needs and provide students with the opportunity to act on feedback to improve their performance.

Student self-assessment strategies can be effective when students begin to prepare for a test. After the test, there are many other opportunities to employ a formative approach.

Preparing for a test by using Traffic Lights

In this strategy teachers provide students with a list of the skills, knowledge and understandings the test will focus on, and students work through the list, identifying each aspect as follows:

‘I can explain this aspect to someone else.’ (green light)

‘I think I understand this aspect but I’d have difficulty explaining it to someone else.’ (amber light)

‘I don’t understand this aspect.’ (red light)

The resulting record gives students a focus for their revision.

Writing the questions – or even the whole test

  • Asking students to design an appropriate question provides them and the teacher with an opportunity to evaluate their understanding of the skills, knowledge and understanding that are involved.
  • Designing the entire test (within provided guidelines which indicate the number and variety of question types) involves more learning than simply responding to a teacher-generated test.

After the test

After the test, there are many opportunities for a formative approach.

Instead of simply handing back the marked tests to students and then going through the test to explain the required answers, teachers can use strategies which encourage further reinforcement and learning.

  • Before the test is marked and returned to students, the teacher divides up the test and allots different sections or questions to groups of students. The role of the students is to agree on a response to each of the questions and how marks should be allotted. Groups then share their work with the class.
  • Teachers identify those questions which caused the most difficulty for students, and then go over the answers to these with the class before they return the completed tests to the students.
  • Teachers identify the ten toughest questions (or however many are relevant given the design of the test). They ask students to review those questions in pairs to confirm what they believe should be the correct answers. They then confirm their answers with another pair before checking with the teacher. (This strategy was suggested by the Alberta Assessment Consortium.)