How Can We Test Better?

All or nothing, good vs. evil, black or white thinking is rarely useful or accurate. No surprise when that’s true of testing. While of testing I might say, in the immortal words of Marianne Moore, that I, too, dislike it, I don’t dislike all of it all of the time. Some testing is necessary. We don’t any of us want a surgeon or even an auto mechanic whose knowledge hasn’t been reviewed and certified. The question is how can we test better?


Exam” by Alberto G., licensed under CC BY 2.0.

More to the point, we need some ways (plural) of measuring what kids are learning. But testing has to be approached with intentionality, with a view to its purpose, and with an understanding of what makes it effective:

We need to change the way we think about testing. It shouldn’t be a white-knuckle finale to a semester’s work, but the means by which students progress from the start of a semester to its finish, locking in learning along the way and redirecting their effort to areas of weakness where more work is needed to achieve proficiency.

Standardized testing is in some respects a quest for more rigor in public education. We can achieve rigor in a different way. We can instruct teachers on the use of low-stakes quizzing in class. We can teach students the benefits of retrieval practice and how to use it in their studying outside class. These steps cost little and cultivate habits of successful learning that will serve students throughout their lives.

This approach is interesting. So what if we returned to the way we used to administer standardized tests, before NCLB, when most states tested at three grade levels, usually something like 3, 7, and 10? Some states also included some kind of graduation requirement test, others didn’t.

And then what if teaching credential programs included required classes on assessment? That’s a crucial component. How to make sure that these informal classroom assessments achieve the intended purposes? How to ensure that the assessments are constructed according to best practices? How to make sure that there is no subjectivity (or as little as possible) in the scoring? And how to make sure that the quizzes remained low-stakes? I’ve seen the damage that too many quizzes can do when they’re tied to grades; the stress for students is far greater than what they experience for high-stakes exams, because they experience the consequences directly in their grades and because the stress may occur daily or weekly, depending on the frequency of the quizzes. Then again, if these informal assessments are truly low-stakes, will students be motivated to work at retrieving knowledge, or will they do what so many kids regrettably do at home, that is, when they are looking for the scissors or the tape, they glance about them and, failing to see the scissors or tape in plain view, give up?

UPDATE: The consequences to not testing better are so great, as illustrated in “Wrong Answer,” the story of the Atlanta schools cheating scandal. It’s tempting and easy to blame the teachers, the principals, the school superintendents, but the problem is much bigger and more complicated and can’t be reduced to one of morality or the wrongdoing of individuals.

by Marianne Moore

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
      all this fiddle.
   Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
      discovers in
   it after all, a place for the genuine.
      Hands that can grasp, eyes
      that can dilate, hair that can rise
         if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
      they are
   useful. When they become so derivative as to become
   the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
      do not admire what
      we cannot understand: the bat
         holding on upside down or in quest of something to 

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless
      wolf under
   a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse
      that feels a flea, the base-
   ball fan, the statistician--
      nor is it valid
         to discriminate against “business documents and

school-books”; all these phenomena are important. One must make
      a distinction
   however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the
      result is not poetry,
   nor till the poets among us can be
     “literalists of
      the imagination”--above
         insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, “imaginary gardens with real toads in them,"
      shall we have
   it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
   the raw material of poetry in
      all its rawness and
      that which is on the other hand
         genuine, you are interested in poetry.

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  1. Judy Staten says:

    I’m so glad I decided to check out what you’re up to. As always, your words ring so true with me. One of your final posts on Inkspot, “C. K. Lewis Hurt My Feelings” really resonated. Hope you’re doing well and that we will work together again soon.

    • Leslie Hall says:

      Judy, I’m so glad to hear from you and very much look forward to working with you again. Thank you for the kind words.

      • Judy Staten says:

        Well, as soon as I saw your reply, I realized I had misquoted the title of the post I especially enjoyed. I respect your words too much to let this go. So, just to set the record and my silly pride straight; I really loved “Louis C.K. Hurt My Feelings.” No need to reply!

  2. I just came across this article, which is entirely on point:
    (forgive edweek for their lame paywall, for they know not what they do)

    This is awfully good intellectual company you’re keeping–Dylan Wiliam even joined the discussion/comments. But I heard if from you first.

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