Skip to content
ascd logo

March 1, 2020
Vol. 77
No. 6

Show & Tell: A Video Column / The Power of Practice Assessments

author avatar
author avatar
Formative practice testing refers to providing students with a practice version of an assessment in advance of the "real" assessment. In their meta-analysis of this strategy, Adesope, Trevisan, and Sundararajan noted that formative practice testing raised scores on a summative exam, and that the differences in learning between those students who did and didn't receive a practice test generally endured over the course of a year. In other words, when students are given practice versions of assessments, they remember the content assessed longer than those who don't take a practice test. These findings applied to both elementary and secondary students. A practice test was equally effective with any type of assessment—multiple choice, constructed responses, essays, or performance assessments.

Why Does It Work?

What made the difference in terms of students who took a "practice run" doing better on the real assessment, according to the study, seemed to be that those students reflected on the results of the practice assessment and took steps to improve their learning before it was too late. As we've noted previously, students need to know what they are learning and exactly what success in that learning area looks like. When they see data about which success criterion they have—or haven't—mastered, students are more likely to assume responsibility and take action. In fact, when students have a chance to analyze their performance and identify what they still need to learn, they are empowered—essentially, they are more likely to set goals for themselves and allocate resources toward meeting those goals.

Yes, 2nd Graders Can!

Larni Bathgate, a 2nd-grade teacher in Australia, provides her students frequent opportunities to analyze their performance—to identify areas of learning they still need to master and decide on their next steps (either more practice or additional learning). Ms. Bathgate attended a webinar we were involved with and has been in email communication with us for several months. She starts a unit by explaining to her students the success criteria for the upcoming series of lessons. She asks each learner which of the success criteria they have already mastered and which they will need to focus on. Students use a checklist of the success criteria for this initial self-assessment to identify areas in which they need to grow and set goals for themselves. As the lessons of the unit progress, the teacher periodically administers a no-stakes practice assessment, then invites her 2nd graders to review the results and update their self-assessment data. They cut out strips of paper with self-evaluation sentences on them that delineate each of the success criteria (such as "I used some topic-specific words"), pasting each sentence in one of four boxes on a chart:
  • Hard things I got right.
  • Easy things I got right.
  • Hard things I got wrong.
  • Easy things I got wrong.
In addition, Ms. Bathgate's students respond to three prompts about their performance on the practice assessment: What did I do well? What do I need to practice? What do I still need my teacher to teach me?
Imagine how empowered these students feel as they identify areas in which they need to practice versus areas in which they need additional instruction. Yes, 2nd grade students can be empowered to understand their own learning needs. They just need opportunities to do so.

Midterms Without Fear

In the video that accompanies this column, we visit Joseph Assof's advanced mathematics classroom at Health Sciences High and Middle College in San Diego a few days before midterms. The high school juniors in this class have had many experiences analyzing their performance and identifying what they still need to learn. In the video, you'll see Mr. Assof set the purpose for the class period: to develop a personalized review plan. He tells students they will have responsibility for their learning and will have time to close any gaps in their understanding before they take the cumulative midterm.
Mr. Assof gives his students a success criteria review checklist to track their progress. The students reflect on the results of the no-stakes practice assessment he administered a few days earlier. It is composed of a sampling of items that are similar to those that might appear on the cumulative exam. He asserts something he often tells students: "mastery requires maintenance." He notes that while he expects them to demonstrate success in the cumulative midterm, he knows that to do so, they need to review and refresh their learning and identify gaps in their understanding. It is counterintuitive, but students often end up studying what they already know, in part because it feels good (and seems like work). But we should ensure that students study what they don't know—and identify areas for which they require additional help This practice assessment and the opportunity to review their results will lead each of them to develop a plan toward that end.
Note how Mr. Assof then models his own thinking for students. For learners to be empowered, they need examples of the types of thinking they'll have to do to be successful. Thinking is invisible, but by sharing their thought processes aloud, teachers like Mr. Assof make them visible, apprenticing students into effective thinking for learning.
This teacher next focuses on areas of needed practice. Students report to Mr. Assof which items they need more instruction on (or simply need more practice with). He identifies opportunities for additional practice and, while his students study, Mr. Assof checks in with each of them to find out which items require more instruction. He meets with needs-based small groups for short reteaching sessions.

Beyond Just Weighing the Sheep

Simply giving students a practice test isn't likely to have the impact necessary to ensure that students learn more. Yes, practice tests are useful, but they aren't sufficient. Practice tests should be paired with feedback, as in Mr. Assof's classroom, and guidance to help students analyze their performance and identify gaps in their learning.
Students must then be provided with time and resources to study and with targeted instruction designed to close the gap between what they already know and what they need to know.
As the saying goes, "you don't fatten sheep by weighing them." Administering lots of practice tests probably isn't useful. But a strategically timed practice assessment can empower students to try harder and learn more.
Instructional Strategies

Show & Tell EL March 2020

2 years ago
End Notes

1 Adesope, O. O., Trevisan, D. A., & Sundararajan, N. (2017). Rethinking the use of tests: A meta-analysis of practice testing. Review of Educational Research, 87(3), 659–701.

Doug Fisher is a professor of educational leadership at San Diego State University, where he focuses on policies and practices in literacy and school leadership. Additionally, he is a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College, an award-winning, open-enrollment public school in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego that he cofounded in 2007. His areas of interest include instructional design, curriculum development, and professional learning. A passionate educator, Fisher's work is dedicated to impacting professional learning communities and nurturing the knowledge and skills of caring teachers and school leaders so they may help students improve their learning and attain their goals and aspirations.

Fisher is a member of the California Reading Hall of Fame as well as the recipient of an International Reading Association William S. Grey citation of merit and Exemplary Leader award from the Conference on English Leadership of NCTE. Previously, he was an early intervention teacher and elementary school educator. He has published numerous articles and books on literacy and leadership, teaching and learning, and improving student achievement.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Related Articles
View all
The Way We Talk About Assessment Matters
Kevin Kuehn
2 months ago

Related Articles

From our issue
Product cover image 120041b.jpg
The Empowered Student
Go To Publication