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September 1, 1999
Vol. 57
No. 1

A Test Worth Taking

Just as teachers vary their instructional techniques to suit different learning styles, they can also create tests that give students choices to show what they know and how they learn best.

Instructional Strategies
Above each of our desks at school hangs a quote from Hilda Taba: "If you want students to think differently, you need to teach differently." Like most educators, we have a wide diversity of learners in our classrooms. Because we truly believe what Taba says, we continually seek ways to make each student's learning experience a personal journey geared to his or her individual needs and abilities.
To respond to this challenge, we use a variety of teaching strategies to deliver instruction. We provide activities and assessments in different learning styles and multiple intelligences that allow students to learn through manipulatives, writing, oral presentations, and self-reflection. But even with these techniques, when it came to testing, we found ourselves relying on short-answer tests that often failed to assess what students had learned. Upon reflection, we realized that our testing practices were incongruent with our instructional beliefs.
This got us thinking. If our students learn best through a variety of activities, wouldn't they be better able to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of the content if they had the same avenues for expression? Shouldn't some of our assessments, then, allow students to express their knowledge in ways that best suit their learning styles and intelligences?

Personalizing Testing

  • given a choice;
  • able to understand the purpose behind their learning;
  • motivated;
  • given the time they need to acquire understanding;
  • clear about expectations;
  • involved in setting standards for their work; and
  • provided with models of quality work.
Although our instruction emphasized learning, our tests seemed to focus students' attention simply on a grade. The test had ceased to become a learning tool. Could we transfer these same principles to the construction of tests? What would be the criteria for writing such a test? How could we get students to buy into it?
In formulating a model for a learning-compatible test, we looked at some key research. In their work on assessment, Wiggins and McTighe (1998) describe "indicators of understanding." If students truly understand the content, they will be able to explain it, predict it, apply it, demonstrate its importance, justify or critique it, make connections with other facts, and avoid common misconceptions. Current assessment practices merely audit student work and do not help students improve.
Schlecty (1994) gave us other insights into a framework for meaningful assessment. He says that students who are engaged in their work exhibit three characteristics: (1) They are attracted to their work; (2) they persist in their work despite challenges and obstacles; and (3) they take visible delight in accomplishing their work. In addition, when we looked at recent brain research and how it applies to curriculum, we noted that Lowery (1998) tells us that the "students [need] to construct meaning for themselves through exploring relationships and webbing those explorations to their prior knowledge" (p. 30).
What all this research told us was that a learning-compatible test would have to be engaging and motivational and allow students to construct meaning for themselves. Could a test be designed to incorporate these principles?

Designing a Better Test

  • begin with a purpose that connects the content to previous knowledge and previews topics yet to be covered;
  • be written as a narrative;
  • clearly state what students need to know and understand;
  • have a section for students to explain in their own words what they have learned in the unit;
  • have a section for student reflection;
  • provide choice;
  • involve all four learning styles and as many multiple intelligences as appropriate;
  • provide clear directions;
  • allow sufficient time for students to complete the tasks;
  • be interesting and provide meaningful feedback for both the students and the teacher; and
  • emphasize competency rather than grades.
With these principles in mind, we prepared an end-of-the-unit test on the basic unit of life—the cell. We had to look at what principles guided the instructional approach and how they translated into strategies for the classroom. The next step was to design a test that reflected these principles and strategies. We needed to know that the students had developed an understanding not just of the content, but also of the skills that we had taught during the unit (see fig. 1).

Figure 1. Cell Test

A Test Worth Taking - table

Principle

Sample Test Item

The test should begin with a purpose that connects previous knowledge and previews topics yet to be covered.Understanding cell structure and function is essential to understand biology. This knowledge helps us understand why organisms behave as they do, how they develop and reproduce, and how they are affected by environmental factors. The knowledge that you have gained in this unit will be the 
The test should be written as a narrative.Every individual cell exists in a liquid environment. Even the cells of multicellular organisms such as a maple tree or a human are bathed in liquid. That is why we say that the human body is made up mostly of water. The presence of a liquid environment makes it easier for such materials as food, oxygen, and water to move into and out of the cell. There are several ways in which materials enter and leave the cell. Two such processes are diffusion and osmosis. In the next section of the test, you will have an opportunity to show me what you have learned about these two processes.
The test should provide choice.Section IV: Complete A or B. What are the differences among cells, organs, tissues, and systems? Use the chart below to record answers. Describe the relationship among cells, organs, tissues, and systems to a 10-year-old by using words and pictures.
The test should involve all four learning styles and as many multiple intelligences as appropriate.Compare and constrast active and passive transport. How are they different? How are they similar? Correctly match the parts of the cell with their functions. Using the materials available, prepare two slides—one of an animal cell and one of a plant cell. Show me slides before you place them under the microscope. I will then watch you place the slide under the microscope correctly locate and focus the image. Finally, make a drawing of what you see and label the parts of the cells. Scientists often use metaphors to describe scientific phenomena. Create a metaphor that accurately explains the relationship of the parts of the cell to their functions.
The test should provide clear directions and emphasize competency rather than grades.Your goal in taking this test is to earn 100 points. It is not necessary to answer all the questions on the test. For each section, you will need to select the question(s) that you feel most comfortable answering. Remember to answer the questions completely. Do not rush through the test! This is your chance to choose the questions that will give you the best opportunity to show me what you have learned in the unit.
The test should be interesting and provide meaningful feedback for both the students and teacher.How well did the activities that we did in class help you prepare for this test? How much time did you spend preparing for this test?
The test should have a section for student reflection.How did you feel about the way this test was written? What else do you know about the cell that was not asked on this test?
Our test design created different avenues by which the students could express their understanding and knowledge that they had acquired during our studies. We also built into the test accommodations for special needs students. We gave students a goal of 100 points. They could choose to answer any test items that would allow them to meet this goal.
Students took the test over a two-day period. On the first day, they looked over the test, read the purpose, reviewed the directions, and computed how many points they needed to earn in each section to total 100 points. They then began the test. The next day they completed their work. Was cheating a problem? The only way to "cheat" was to actively seek assistance from their notes, textbooks, or friends. Any test that inspires students to actively seek knowledge on their own is certainly not a tragedy!
The student responses were incredible. For the first time, students said, "When is the next test?" Their feedback after the first test indicated that the majority of the students preferred this test to a traditional multiple-choice or short-answer test (see fig. 2). They felt that they were given the freedom of choice. If they had trouble expressing themselves with one style, they could choose another. This format gave a whole new meaning to the words multiple-choice test.

A Test Worth Taking - table

Pros

Cons

I like the choices test better because there's not just one way to do things. On the Scantron, you can answer a question in only one way: fill in a circle.It takes a long time. . . .There is more writing.
I believe that the cell test was designed better than Scantrons because it focused more on different people's learning styles to help them.I like Scantron tests better because they are much easier and there is less writing in them.
I think that the cell test, which gave us the opportunity to choose what we knew, was better. I think that type of test helps us learn more efficiently. The multiple choice test was easier, but I didn't learn as much from the test.I like Scantron a little better because you can guess, but I always forget a pencil.
I liked the cell-test format because there are certain ways of testing that are more comfortable or a better format to be quizzed on. Being able to choose the method I understood better helped me to feel good about the test, and I knew what I was doing.I like Scantron tests better because if you don't know an answer, at least you have some choices so that you can guess.
I liked the cell test. . . . It was less stressful.
A few students stated that they prefer traditional multiple-choice tests. Their reason? Those tests made guessing easier. This statement alone told us that our new type of test forced students to think critically and to engage in problem solving as they worked their way through the assessment.

Student and Teacher Benefits

Constructing this type of test takes time. Time to think about the different learning styles to incorporate. Time to write a purpose. Time to prepare clear, concise directions. Time to clarify student expectations for performance. Time to give the test. Time to grade the test.
But the extra time invested in the preparation, administration, and evaluation of the test is well worth it. The student gains in learning were exciting. As students took the test, they read and reviewed introductory paragraphs of key concepts. They applied the information from one part of the test to assist them on another section. But most important, they were challenged to make choices that would allow them to express themselves in a style that matched their own.
As teachers, we were able to see a clear demonstration of student knowledge and understanding from the results—more so than any traditional, short-answer test could have provided. We gained valuable insights into the individual learning styles, intellligences, and thinking processes of the students.
This knowledge has allowed us to find effective ways to individualize the learning environment for all students. Our journey in creating and administering this test has led us to discover a new insight on Taba's quote. If you want students to think differently, you also need to test differently!
References

Lowery, L. (1998, November). How new science curriculums reflect brain research. Educational Leadership, 56, 26–30.

Schlecty, P. (1994). Increasing student engagement. Presentation at Missouri Leadership Academy.

Silver, H., & Strong, R. (1995). The principles and practices of Thoughtful Education. Woodbridge, NJ: Thoughtful Education Press.

Silver, H., & Strong, R. (1998). Designing a thoughtful curriculum. Woodbridge, NJ: Thoughtful Education Press.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Claudia Geocaris has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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