Friday, April 27, 2012

Is there such thing as a good test?

Editor’s Note: By now most people understand that standardized tests are not only harmful, but often they are also poorly constructed. But is there such thing as a good test? I was having a conversation with Cathy Earle about the subject and wondered if there is such thing as a good test. During that conversation she explained the reality is that in many cases the problem is how tests are used i.e. to assess students rather than help them learn. I asked her to say more and provide and example. Here it is and I have to admit...I rather like this kind of test.

Guest post by Cathy Earle

My daughter took a class at a local museum, the Youth Science Center. The class was a few hours each day for five days, and it was all about snakes.

The teacher introduced the first class with the words, “We're going to take a pre-test, to see how much you guys know about snakes already.” Then he passed out a multiple-choice test.

The thing is, my child never took multiple-choice tests, except a few fun quizzes in magazines. She unschools, and we didn't do lessons and assignments and tests.

Still, she gamely filled out the test and did her best.

Her best turned out to be the worst in the class.

Well, that's how it seemed. The teacher had the kids correct their own pre-tests, and he went through each test item, explaining the correct answer and WHY that was the correct answer. In a way, with 30 questions on the test, he was giving 30 little mini-lessons on snakes.

After he completed the test review, the teacher asked the kids to raise their hands if they got every answer right, then 1 to 5 wrong, 6 to 10 wrong, and so on.

And, as I said, my kid was the one with her hand up at the end—she had the worst score in the class (or, perhaps, was the most honest one self-correcting and self-reporting!).

The teacher said to her, “You won the prize!” And he gave her the molted, empty, translucent skin of a snake—one whole, shimmering, flawless piece. Everyone else oohed and aahed in envy, and the teacher continued, “Because you will learn the most in this class.”

Then the teacher gave an assignment: he asked the students to give the test to a parent or older sibling or friend, and explain the answers to them as he just had.

(Note: Since this was a museum class, there was going to be no punishment if a child didn't do the assignment. The teacher didn't record the scores of the pre-test. There would be no grade on the children's permanent record. The class was designed for fun and learning.)

My child loved the idea of giving us the test. I took it as soon as she came home, and I found it pretty challenging. I knew more answers than my daughter had, but I have to admit, I thought I knew some things that I was just plain wrong about. I was amazed as my daughter reported all the correct answers and why those answers were correct: she went on and on, and she seemed to know SO MUCH about the topic already! I definitely learned some things that day, too.

My parents came over, and my daughter relished two more subjects for her test. After they took the test, she went through all of the explanations again. I took a few minutes to do some research in some books (this was pre-Google), and every fact I could check was correct.

My husband came home from work, where he teaches high school Biology. When my daughter proudly showed him her perfect snake skin, his eyes lit up. But when she told him how she won the prize, his face fell. He got very doubtful about what we were doing—unschooling was ruining our child's chances for success, he was sure, and the low score on this test confirmed it.

“No, it's a really hard test,” I told him.

“I want to give you the test,” my daughter said to him. “I already gave it to Mom and Papa and Grandma.”

“Well, I'm a Biology teacher,” my husband protested. “I'll know it all.”

“Oh, no, you won't,” I promised.

My husband took the test and scored about as low as my daughter, then listened in astonishment as she filled him in on all the correct answers and explanations. I think he was mostly amazed that she already knew so much about snakes and reptiles and cold-blooded organisms.

I admire this use of a paper-and-pencil test because it taught so much about the subject matter, but it also taught kids to self-correct and report honestly, it taught that there is no shame in not knowing something, and it taught kids that a great way to understand something well is to teach it.

Cathy Earle is an educator who has worked in public schools and a variety of private venues. She has been a curriculum lab director, a managing editor at an education publishing house, and a freelance education writer working for such clients as The Learning Company, Orange County Department of Education, and Disney Software. She homeschooled her own children from birth to college, using child-led and interest-based methods rather than formal academic teaching. Her daughters are now grown and successful.  Her blog for children, Every Day Is Special, can be found at


  1. The difference between this test and so many others is that the purpose of it is to see what the test taker already knows and share additional information with those taking the test. The goal is to add to the test takers knowledge and understanding of snakes. There is no punitive component, no grade, no shaming, no judgement, no outcome based contingencies. What makes it fun and successful in achieving it's goal (to share information about snakes) is that it begins and ends with that purpose in mind. Before administering any test we should examine the purpose and determine if it is the best way to accomplish those goals. The same could be said for education in general; begin with the purpose in mind.

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  3. The class was designed for fun and learning. Why is this so difficult to mainstream? One other aspect that needs to be mentioned is that the children who took the class at the museum, I assume, wanted to take the class based on their interests

  4. This type of "test" is actually more effective than a lecture. Why? Because if the guy had just lectured all those answers to the children, they may or may not have had a point of reference to hang the information. Their minds would have inevitably wandered as well. By giving this pre-test, it made each child use his mind to think, rationalize, and intuit answers first. Then, when they heard the "right answer," especially since he did it right away, each child could compare that either his rationalization had been right, and why, or wrong, and re-organize it in his mind for a greater hook for remembering it later.

    I just had this same conversation on my e-mail group about giving my children the answer key to any text they may use when they got older. So many in society view this as cheating, but if a child hasn't been trained to view wrong answers as "bad," and that every answer they give has a permanent consequence of A, B, or C level of performance, then they see it as a way to learn. Just like the museum guy did, he used it as an opportunity to learn. Answer keys can be an opportunity to learn. For instance, if you can't figure out the answer to a question/problem, you can work backward from the answer. It's a tool. If I were studying for the driver's test, I like to answer a question, and then check the answer key right away to know if my logic was correct. If not, I can adjust it because I already tried to solve it and now I can adjust my rationalization. Did you follow that? Haha!

    The problem with how we typically use tests, especially in school, is that wrong answers are considered "bad" and permanent. It's not used as a learning tool, but a sorting device. Thanks for sharing this article and getting a conversation going on it!

    1. Cindy, you said that a test is not "a learning tool, but a sorting device." Perfectly put!!