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The ABCs of a Good Test: Advice for New Teachers

by Len Rabinowitz

Introduction
Types of Assessment
What You Should Test
What a Good Test Looks Like
Preparing Students For Standardized Tests
Conclusion
Resources


INTRODUCTION

New teachers deal with an enormous array of issues. They have to confront everything from finding where the copier is to getting to know dozens of new colleagues and students. The stresses and strains of this can be tremendous. Those of us who are veteran teachers remember our first encounter with parents, our first evaluation, the first time we taught a new subject, or the first time we disciplined a student. Although we can smile now, these and other first-year experiences were often tremendously stressful.

During my first few weeks of teaching, I was listening to some colleagues chat before classes started and one of them mentioned that he was giving a test. This caused me to panic—Ohmigosh! I've been here three weeks and I haven't tested anybody on anything! I'd better get right on that! I walked into my American History class and announced that there would be a test the next day, covering what was essentially a rather random selection of pages that we had been reading recently, which made no sense to test on at that time. The test itself had no rhyme or reason and was a hodgepodge of fill-in-the-blank, multiple-choice, true/false, and short-response questions.

I never did that again, but I have been very involved with issues surrounding assessment over the years. As I think about my initial teacher training, there was almost no preparation in this area. This is regrettable, not only because a teacher needs to know how to assess student progress, but also because assessment is a hot topic in education. Many states now require students to pass statewide exams in order to graduate from high school. The MCAS exam in Massachusetts is one example of this.

When my niece, who had just graduated from high school, was visiting with us recently, I told her that the topic of this article was about helping new teachers to write good tests. She said something like, "Boy do they need it! Sometimes tests from new teachers are so confusing!" So take it from someone who has just been there—this is still an area in which new teachers need help.

This article aims to provide some ideas, tips, and pointers based on my experiences. Many veteran teachers may have additional suggestions. Since I am a social studies teacher, history and other social sciences will be the basis for my examples. However, the ideas should be generally applicable to other areas as well.

This article will give brief overviews of the following areas:

  • Types of assessment
  • What you should test
  • What a good test looks like
  • Preparing students for standardized tests

TYPES OF ASSESSMENT

students taking a testIn general, most questions fall into one of two broad categories: objective and subjective. Obviously an assessment can, and in many cases should, contain both objective and subjective questions—multiple choice and essay for example. But it is important to remember that assessments don't have to contain both. It is acceptable to make some only objective or only essay. As long as your students have been exposed to both types of questions during the course of their time with you, it isn't necessary to put both on all assessments.

Assessment

  1. Objective questions usually assess factual knowledge. The following is an example of an objective question:

    After the election of Abraham Lincoln, which was the first state to secede from the Union?
    a) North Carolina
    b) South Carolina
    c) Maryland
    d) Maine

    This is objective because it tests basic factual knowledge— the student either knows this or doesn't know this. (The answer is b.) You'll notice something else about the question— students who know the material have a reasonable chance of answering the question. They can easily eliminate Maine because it is in the North; they may think for a second about Maryland before disqualifying it because it was a border state; the two Carolinas should give them pause, but if they know the material, they should be able to determine the correct answer. Avoid "trick" questions or questions on material that wasn't taught.

  2. Subjective questions involve opinion, reasoning, argument, point of view, logic, and other things that may vary from student to student. Asking students "How do you account for the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861?" is a subjective question because there were many contributing factors—students may address any number of them in a variety of ways, any of which could be considered correct. Yet answering a subjective question involves more than having students "express their feelings" or "give their opinions." Their answers have to be based on a mastery of the facts, on solid reasoning, and on clear expression.

Assessment Formats

Objective and subjective questions may be used in a variety of assessments, such as quizzes, tests, essays, and alternative assessments. Let's take a quick look at these.

  1. Quiz
    A quiz is just a quick review and check. It is used to hold students accountable for assignments and to ascertain whether they have learned what they need to learn. Most quizzes are objective in nature, with multiple choice, true/false, or fill-in-the-blank questions.

    You can give subjective written quizzes, but they should be geared toward short responses—one or two paragraphs. If you give a subjective quiz, you may want to consider grading for content only (not counting spelling or grammar) since your main purposes are a quick check and accountability.

  2. Test
    A test is an assessment or examination of students' knowledge in a given area. An important thing to remember here is not to test just because you feel you have to. Test when it is logical and appropriate and when students are ready for it. And test them on what you have taught them. It is sometimes tempting to use tests as a form of accountability: "I'm going to test you on these things from the book even though we didn't go over them, just to make sure that you did." That's the role of a quiz. When it comes to a final assessment of any sort, you should test students on what you really expect them to have learned. Tests usually contain both objective and subjective questions in the following formats:
    • Multiple choice
    • Matching
    • True/false
    • Fill-in-the-blank
    • Essay or short-response questions, some of which may be based on primary-source documents

    As a personal matter, I do not usually use matching, true/false, or fill-in-the-blank questions. I am not certain what they test that is not covered by a multiple-choice question. Also, many of the major exams, such as the AP® history exams or many of the state exams, use only multiple-choice and essay questions. Certainly, the other question forms are valid tools. You should choose the format that is the best to use, given the knowledge to be tested. For example, if you have a section about many people and their accomplishments, that might be a good candidate for a matching format. A section that has a lot of factual material would be a good candidate for a multiple-choice or true/false format. Fill-in-the-blank questions are good if you have many vocabulary terms.

    Another good suggestion is to vary your tests by sections of the chapter or topics of the unit being tested: section one gets multiple choice, section two gets matching, and so on. Be aware of "double-testing"—asking about a subject once in a multiple-choice question and then again in a matching or true/false question. This may be valid on occasion, because sometimes a different approach can help students understand something. For the most part, however, you should avoid it. You have limited space and time for a test; asking about something once is enough.

  3. Essay
    Writing good essay questions is a topic in itself. It is often a matter of "size"—you have to ask a question appropriate to the testing situation. There is a difference between essays that are written at home and classroom tests that are essay-only or part-essay and part-objective. If the essay is not a take-home test, time is a major factor. This is particularly true if you are working in shorter periods. You need to find a question that is "big" enough to write an essay about, but not so big that it can't be answered in the time that you have allotted for it.

    A question that can be answered in one sentence—"What action by the Nazis on September 1, 1939, is considered the beginning of World War II?"— is not a good essay question, unless you follow up with "Why?" Otherwise, the student will only write, "The action is the invasion of Poland."

    If you have a 45-minute period for a test that is multiple choice and essay, a student may have 20 minutes to write that essay. You need to ask something that can be addressed well in that time, and it is probably not reasonable to ask for more than two or three paragraphs.

    The following is an example of what students may handle in that time:

    Choose TWO incidents in the presidency of Thomas Jefferson. Tell what they were and why they were significant.

    I can think of at least four incidents: his election in 1800, his inaugural address, the Louisiana Purchase, and the Embargo Act. There are other important incidents as well. Each of these could probably be handled by a high school student in one or two paragraphs. Additionally, the question allows students some choice: they can address the incidents that they know the most about.

    If you wish to give an exam that is essay only, you can open up the question more. The following is an example of a question that would probably be best suited to a full period or a take-home exam:

    Take EACH of the following and discuss the role they played in the outbreak of the revolution in France in 1789. Then, choose ONE and provide an argument for why it should be considered the most important single aspect:
    • Economic and financial conditions
    • French social class structure
    • Influence of the American Revolution and Enlightenment ideas

    Given that the students have to write about four things, this would obviously take more time. Also, it is a good example of a question that asks them to provide both factual and analytical material in their answers. If you need and can afford more time, you may consider giving the objective portion one day and the subjective portion the next day.

  4. Alternative Assessments
    In essence, an alternative assessment is anything that is not a standard test and/or essay. Alternative assessments can include, but are not necessarily limited to, the following:
    • Portfolios
    • Group or individual projects
    • Oral presentations
    • Research papers or projects
    • Games or other similar activities
    • Skits, plays, or other similar activities
    • Posters, cartoons, or other visual or artistic work or a song about the topic

    In certain ways, many alternative assessments are similar to written assessments in that they do not test students so much as they ask the students to demonstrate knowledge. For this reason, many students will often do better on a well-designed alternative assessment, over which they may have some control, than they will on a standard multiple-choice and essay test. Alternative assessment allows us to enable students with diverse learning styles to demonstrate their knowledge.

    The two key components of a good alternative assessment are a well-designed and clear assignment and a good scoring guide or rubric that sets out clear standards. Alternative assessments should not be seen as a "code word" for low standards. They often address the needs of students in more creative ways, and they can address the needs of students who learn in different ways or who have learning disabilities. In any case, hold students accountable—ask them to show that they have learned what they need to learn. Of course, the primary thing here is content, but alternative assessments can also provide students with the opportunity to master skills such as organizing a project or public speaking.

    Students who do all of the following at the excellent, superb, or outstanding level will receive top scores:
    • Demonstrate full, complete, and in-depth knowledge of their assigned aspect of a topic without use of notes or other references.
    • Have a poster that is clear, neat, relevant, creative, and colorful.
    • Make effective use of at least two primary source documents.
    • Demonstrate superb speaking and presentation skills.
    • Answer questions correctly and clearly.
    • Provide a well-done and clear study and note-taking guide for other students.
    • Provide a thorough, complete, and properly done bibliography of sources.
    • Complete every aspect of the assignment fully and to the best of their ability.

    Students who do an assignment of this nature are being held to high academic standards.

WHAT YOU SHOULD TEST

Another issue related to assessment is "What do I test students on?" or, for the students, "What do I study?" There are a few things to keep in mind here. Test students on what you taught them and on what you can reasonably expect them to do and to know. This falls into two areas:

  • Factual content of the unit of study
  • Skills such as reasoning, logical thinking, argument, analysis, and use of evidence

Factual Knowledge

Knowledge of factual content would seem obvious, but this can be overlooked. Actually, it's helpful to ask yourself this question at the beginning of the unit: "Factually, what do I want students to know at the end of this unit? What are the important facts?" If a student finishes a unit on Freudian psychology in your psychology class but can't identify the id, ego, and superego, there's a problem. This is particularly important in social studies, because many students see this subject as a meaningless jumble of facts. You need to help them sort out what is important and get that across to them. Frankly, this can help in your planning of the unit; a good time to think about the end of the unit is when you are beginning it.

I find the following to be a good guideline in terms of "What do I test them on?":

  • People: Who was involved? What did they do and why did they do it? Why are they important?
  • Places: Where is this taking place? What impact did the region have? What is the geography?
  • Events: What happened? Why did it happen? Where did it happen? What impact did it have?
  • Vocabulary: What are the important terms and their definitions?
  • Chronology: What was the order of events and what is the cause-and-effect relationship between them?

If you look at your lessons in this way, you will generally find plenty to test.

Critical Thinking Skills

Social studies students can also be asked to master noncontent skills, such as critical thinking skills. While this is best accomplished by essay questions, objective-style questions may also be used. The use of primary sources, too, is a good basis for both objective and essay questions.

  1. Objective questions:
    Which of the following is the OPPOSITE of deficit spending?
    a) when revenues exceed expenditures
    b) when expenditures exceed revenues
    c) when revenues and expenditures are equal
    d) when there is neither expenditure nor revenue

    Students have to know what deficit spending is, but they also have to be able to reason—to identify an opposite, a, in order to answer the question.

    Another example:
    All of the following about FDR belong together EXCEPT
    a) was governor of New York
    b) as president, instituted New Deal programs
    c) was elected to four presidential terms
    d) was president during World War II

    The correct, the only nonpresidential fact, is answer a. The ability to group properly is a thinking skill.

    Another way to do it is:
    Which of the following is NOT associated with the ancient Greeks?
    a) Olympics
    b) Parthenon
    c) Socrates
    d) Hieroglyphics

    The answer, d, allows students to use the thought process of elimination, which is also a critical thinking skill.

    When designing multiple-choice questions, try to randomly vary which choice is the correct answer. Don't put in any detectable patterns; try to get an even spread. Also, you don't always have to have four choices. Many exams, such as the AP® history exams, use five choices, and some people feel that this makes them harder. You can occasionally use three choices, although you should try to minimize that.

  2. Essays
    First, a good written assessment should be just that—a good piece of writing. Unless you have specifically told students otherwise, it should represent the students' best efforts at spelling, grammar, and punctuation. It should have a strong thesis statement if that is warranted, and it should have a good essay structure, or at least follow the structure that you have delineated for them.

    Second, a good essay assessment should ask students to demonstrate both content knowledge and thinking skills. The French Revolution question above is one example of that. Here is another example:

    Compare and contrast the northern and southern English colonies, 1607–1763. Do so in terms of TWO of the following:
    • Geography
    • Economics
    • Race and ethnicity
    • Religion
    • Political development

    a test being gradedDiscussing similarities and differences is a thinking skill, and, of course, students need to know the facts. This question shows another aspect of many good written assessments—choice for the students. Essays allow students to express their knowledge to you, to tell you what they know. Students should be given some choice in at least some essay questions, either in terms of which questions to answer and/or choice within the question itself. Choice allows students to write in the area most comfortable to them. Most AP® history exams allow some choice of question, and many allow choice within the question.

    When assigning an essay take-home exam, it may be helpful to students to have a scoring guide. A scoring guide helps students recognize the criteria upon which they are to be assessed. For example, their scoring guide should tell them that they will be graded on writing mechanics, essay structure, content mastery, and clarity. They must be aware, however, that in the end, it is your professional judgment that counts.

    Here is a scoring rubric reflecting the criteria stated above:
      Excellent Above Average Average Unacceptable
    Writing Mechanics Complete, varied, interesting sentences; error-free spelling and grammar Complete sentences; correct grammar Variety of sentences; some errors are evident; careless grammar Repetitious; fragments and run-ons are frequent; grammar mistakes block meaning
    Essay Structure Paragraphs contribute to an effective argument; reinforce the content Paragraphs demonstrate a clear plan; functional Ineffective or inconsistent paragraphs Random paragraphs
    Content Mastery Thesis is clearly focused; subject is significant Thesis is clear; provides direction for essay Thesis is unclear; formulaic; not creative Information is incomplete, ineffective, or missing
    Clarity Detailed; accurate; insightful Clear and thoughtful Uneven Vague or inaccurate

    The corresponding scoring rubric for the teacher might look something like this:
      Excellent Above Average Average Unacceptable
    Writing Mechanics        
    Essay Structure        
    Content Mastery        
    Clarity        

    Put the points earned in the appropriate box. With four grading areas and a 100-point scale, the best a student could do would be to get 25 points in each area. So, a student might get 25s (excellent) in both mechanics and structure, but only 20s (above average) in content and clarity. This would give them a 90/100, or an A–. You can also have space for individualized comments on the bottom. This can help students know more specifically what is expected of them and why you graded them as you did. Readers of AP® essays use scoring rubrics, as do many readers for the state or other exams. Rubrics are not for everyone in every situation. Many of us prefer a kind of holistic assessment—looking at the essay as a whole. Still, rubrics can be a valuable tool in many circumstances.

  3. Primary sources
    Primary-source documents are powerful teaching tools, and they should be used in testing. These can be quotations of various sorts, such as speeches or letters, or they can be visual materials, like posters or political cartoons. You can ask subjective or objective questions. You can ask students to answer some questions about the document that are simply factual in nature, or you could ask them to provide context and analysis. Below are a couple of examples of primary sources. You might want to study the documents and come up with some sample questions.

    Here's an example of questions based on excerpts from the Magna Carta (PDF), found in Prentice Hall's World History: Connecting to Today textbook. You might find other quotations in the students' text to use in your tests.

    This image of da Vinci's Mona Lisa could generate some questions about the Renaissance.
    Mona Lisa

    Some questions about nineteenth-century political machines might be generated by this Thomas Nast cartoon:
    Who stole the people's money? Do tell.

    Some tests use what are called document-based questions. In essence, these are essay questions in which students must study primary-source documents, glean information from them, and use that information, often along with additional knowledge, to answer the question. The following is an example:

    What were some of the "home front" issues for Americans during World War II? Use the posters below and any additional knowledge you have to answer the question.
    Document A Document B Document C
    loose lips might sink ships Have you really tried to save gas by getting into a car club? We Can Do It!

    In answering the question based on these posters, students should touch on the issues of industrial production, conservation, and not speaking about your job because of a fear of spies. If students include outside information, they might choose to write about the treatment of minority groups during World War II.

    Charts can help develop critical thinking skills and assessment questions can vary in style and level of difficulty. Here's a sample of what could be done with a pie chart (PDF) dealing with ethnic and racial groups in colonial America. Another example of questions based on a line graph (PDF) deals with the changes in the birthrate in America.

WHAT A GOOD TEST LOOKS LIKE

The design of an exam is important—the physical layout of it and how it looks. Few things can be more detrimental to students than an exam that is hard to read! Earlier, I discussed the various types of objective questions: matching, fill-in-the-blank, true/false, and multiple choice. If you use these varying types of questions, group them together. It can be confusing if students have to do a multiple choice, then a matching, then a true/false, and so on. Place them in separate sections so that the test is well organized and less confusing.

Layout of the Test

Matching questions are usually formatted into a column A and a column B. A typical matching section may look like the following:

A.   B.
____ 1. George Washington a) World War II
____ 2. Abraham Lincoln b) American Revolution
____ 3. Franklin Roosevelt c) Civil War

(The answers are 1. b, 2. c, 3. a)

Students will take the letter of the correct answer from column B and write it in the blank space before the numeral in column A. There should be the same number of items in both columns. (However, to make a more difficult test, there could be more answers in column B than items in column A.)

Fill-in-the-blank questions are often good for vocabulary. First, list all the vocabulary words, one after the other in sentence form; then, type a paragraph leaving blanks where the vocabulary words can be written in by the students. For example:

Constitution, checks and balances, democratically, republican, federalism, executive, judicial, legislative

The United States is governed by the _______________. The Constitution defines the responsibilities of the national and state governments. This differentiation is called __________. The representatives to the ____________ and _______________ branches of government are _____________ elected by the voters. In a ____________ form of government, elected representatives make laws and decisions for the people they represent. The three branches of government are separated by ________________________. The members of the ______________ branch may be appointed or elected.

(Answers: Constitution, federalism, legislative, executive, democratically, republican, checks and balances, judicial)

True/false questions are often the easiest to create. The students are instructed to write a T for "true" and an F for "false" in the blank space before the numeral. For example:

____ 1. The only president to be assassinated is John F. Kennedy.
____ 2. The United States won the war in Vietnam.
____ 3. Puerto Rico is the 51st state.
____ 4. Missouri was part of the Louisiana Purchase.
(Answers: F, F, F, T)

Did you notice a key hint in the first question? The word only should be a "red flag" to students. Certain words— such as always, never, and only—indicate a false statement. Avoid using them.

Multiple-choice questions should be stacked:

Who was the first president of the United States?
a) George Bush
b) Bill Clinton
c) Harry Houdini
d) George Washington

Putting all the possible answers on one line is not advisable, because it makes the answer too difficult to read and may confuse students:

Who was the first president of the United States?
a) George Bush
b) Bill Clinton
c) Harry Houdini
d) George Washington

Also, try to keep the answers relatively short, with each choice roughly the same length. You don't want a situation in which an answer is obvious because it stands out visually. Here's an example of what NOT to do:

Why did Lincoln issue the Emancipation Proclamation?
a) He was told to.
b) He was a Radical Republican.
c) He had realized that the war for the preservation of the union had to become a war for freedom as well, and he felt that emancipation would give Union soldiers a moral cause to fight for.
d) Mary Todd convinced him to.

Your eye is drawn to c even if you don't know that is the answer.

If you have a question in a test that has a special instruction, most experts feel that highlighting it in some way helps reduce confusion. An example:

Which of the following was NOT part of the Versailles treaty?
a) Germany lost her colonies.
b) Germany declared victory.
c) Germany had to pay reparations.
d) Germany's military forces were reduced.
(The answer is b.)

One final tip on the design of a test: Put the question and all of its choices on the same page. The major standardized exams do this, and I'm sure we all know students who got a question wrong because choice d (the correct answer) was on the next page.

This is also true of essay questions. Put the entire question on one page. You may use a little more paper this way, but you'll have an exam that will be less confusing to your students.

PREPARING STUDENTS FOR STANDARDIZED TESTS

The most important point to remember about preparing students for state or standardized exams is coverage. If you don't teach them the material, they will not do well. We all have our feelings about "teaching to the test;" however, many of these exams are valid assessments. They are a reality of life, whether we like it or not.

Besides content coverage, there are two basic tools that can help students do well on these exams. The first tool is review. Most of these exams are cumulative—they test everything from the beginning of the course to the end. Your midterms and finals shouldn't be the first time students are asked to remember things from months ago. When you are creating your chapter or unit tests, you should occasionally have some questions from prior material. While this may lower grades in the short run, it will get students in the habit of reviewing older material.

The second tool is to give students a chance to practice standardized test-taking. The College Board publishes prior AP® exams periodically, as do many of the states that require exams. Get copies of them, and give them to your students as practice and review. If the tests you are concerned about use a particular type of essay or document-based question, students should have practice in answering those also. Many students feel that practice tests are the best single preparation for exams.

CONCLUSION

Assessment can often be a complex and controversial issue. Writing good exams can be a difficult task to master. If you keep in mind the basic question, "What do students really need to know from a unit or class?" you should do well. Keep at it, be creative, and don't be afraid to try things. As long as your students are learning, that is the most important thing. Good luck!

RESOURCES

National Center for Education Statistics
Choose various subjects, grades, and levels of difficulty for questions from the National Education standardized tests. This site also gives and scores possible student answers.

State Departments of Education
Check this site for a listing of social studies standards for your state.

Writing for Social Studies Assessment (PDF)