Testing, Assessing, and Teaching

I hate tests!

I hate tests!

“Hi Devi, are you ready for the Final Test of DTU General English this Friday?”

“Hi Harry. Well, don’t ask me about it. I’m enjoying the training now, but you know, I think no one in my class will be ready for any test this week.”

“How come? Isn’t it clear from the syllabus the skills to be tested on the final test?”

“Well, Harry, I doubt if the test will be easy for us, like any other tests will do. I believe it’s going to be different from the exercises we did in classes. Oh I hate tests!”

***

Do you have a similar experience like the above story? Generally, when someone hears the word test, his thoughts are not likely to be positive, pleasant, or affirming. The accompanying feelings can be anxiety and self-doubt, as if you are lucky if you can come out of a test alive. The participants of BPPK trainings cannot avoid tests, because the greater majority of the courses offered here end up in tests. And I just wondered how they feel about the tests that they have had here in BPPK…

Before we discuss our topic any further, let’s take a quick test just to feel how tests affect many learners. It’s just a vocabulary test, comprising words found in standard English dictionaries, so you should be able to answer all six items correctly. Answer it by circling the correct definition of each word. (You can check your answer with answer key at the end of this article)

Direction: Circle the correct answer. You have 3 minutes to complete it.

1. Polygene
a. the first stratum of lower-order protozoa containing multiple genes
b. a combination of two or more plastics to produce a highly durable material
c. one of a set of cooperating genes, each producing a small quantitative effect
d. any of a number of multi-cellular chromosomes
2. Cynosure
a. an object that serves as a focal point of attention and admiration; a center of interest or attention
b. a narrow opening caused by a break or fault in limestone caves
c. the cleavage in rock caused by glacial activity
d. one of a group of electrical impulses capable of passing through metals
3. Gudgeon
a. a jail for commoners during the Middle Ages, located in the villages of Germany and France
b. a strip of metal used to reinforce beams and girders in building construction
c. a tool used by Alaskan Indians to carve totem poles
d. a small Eurasian freshwater fish
4. Hippogriff
a. a term used in children’s literature to denote colorful and descriptive phraseology
b. a mythological monster having the wings, claws, and head of a griffin and the body of a horse
c. ancient Egyptian cuneiform writing commonly found on the walls of tombs
d. a skin transplant from the leg or foot of the hip
5. Reglet
a. a narrow, flat molding
b. a musical composition of regular beat and harmonic intonation
c. an Australian bird of the eagle family
d. a short sleeve found on women’s dresses in Victorian
6. Fictile
a. a short, oblong-shaped projectile used in early eighteenth-century cannons
b. an Old English word for the leading character of a fictional novel
c. moldable plastic; formed of a moldable substance such as clay or earth
d. pertaining to the tendency of certain lower mammals to lose visual depth perception with increasing age

Test Source: H. Douglas Brown, 2004. Language assessment: Principles and Classroom Practices. NY: Pearson Education

Now, how the test make you feel? It might be the same as many people who take a multiple choice, timed, and tricky tests: they rely much on their lucky guesses. The torment doesn’t end up here if you still have to wait for weeks to hear your results and learning that you should retake the tests if you cannot meet the minimum score to obtain your training certificate. By the way, if you can answer the above tests correctly on three or more items, congratulations! You just exceeded the average.

The strange vocabulary test just now is of course not a good or an appropriate example of classroom-based achievement testing. It just gives you the sample of how tests make us feel most of the time: stupid, nervous, demotivated, anything else? Some of us may ask: can tests be positive experiences and build a person’s confidence after the learning? Of course the answer is YES! But that needs us: trainer/teacher supported by evaluation unit that can provide a more authentic, motivating assessment procedure that can give constructive feedback to our trainees/students. Let’s find out more about the important relationship between testing, assessing, and teaching.

WHAT IS A TEST?

Brown (2004) simply defines a test as a method of measuring a person’s ability, knowledge, or performance in a given domain. Seeing that definition, there are three components: method, performance, and domain. First component, method, is an instrument: a set of techniques, procedures, or items that requires the performance of the test-taker. A test must be explicit and structured to be qualified as a good method. For example, multiple-choice questions must be supplied with correct answers, a writing  prompt must be accompanied with a scoring rubric; an oral test must be based on a question script with a checklist of expected responses to be filed in by the administrator.

Again, a test must measure. The measurement will provide a total numerical score, a letter grade, a percentile rank, and perhaps some sub-scores. Yes, the way the results or measurements are communicated may vary. But if an instrument  does not specify a form of  reporting measurement, that technique can not be defined as a test.

Next, a test measures an individual’s ability, knowledge, or performance. To be able to measure appropriately, testers need to understand who the test-takers are, what their previous experience and background is, and how should interpret the test scores.

Finally, a test measures a given domain. A proficiency test usually only uses a sampling of skills, but the domain is the overall proficiency, or general competence in all skills. In my view, one of the biggest challenge to handle in constructing an appropriate test is to measure the desired criteria and not include other factors unintentionally.

In sum, Brown emphasized that a well-constructed test is an instrument that provides an accurate measure of the test-taker’s ability within a particular domain. The definition sounds so simple, but in fact, test construction is a complex job that involves both science and art.

ASSESSMENT AND TEACHING

Assessment is a popular term in educational practice. Some people think that testing and assessing is synonymous. Even the definition of test in Wikipedia indicates that both terms are synonymous. (A test or examination is an assessment intended to measure a test-taker’s knowledge, skill, aptitude, physical fitness, or classification in many other topics (e.g., beliefs).  But test and assessment is not really synonymous; they have differences. Brown (2004) said that tests are prepared administrative procedures that occur at identifiable times in a curriculum to measure and evaluate test-takers’ performance. Assessment, on the other hand, is an ongoing process that has a much wider domain than a test. Whenever a student answers a question, gives comments, writes some work, or tries out new structure, the teacher subconsciously makes an assessment of the student’s performance. Tests are then just a subset of assessment.

Now the question for all teachers is: if they make assessment every time they teach something in classroom, does all teaching involve assessment?

I think the answer depends on our perspective. In my view, to make an optimal learning happens in class, the learners must have the freedom to experiment, to try out the new skill and knowledge without feeling that their overall competence is being judged. They have to be given ample chances to “play” with the new knowledge and skill in a classroom without being formally graded. Like in my instance as an English trainer: teaching English sets up the practice games of language learning—the chances for learners to listen, think, take risks, set goals, and process feedback from their “facilitator” and then recycle through the skills that they are trying to master. (My trainees in English classes are always willing to practice and exercise many times without fear of being judged as winners or losers in the course.) Look at the figure below to illustrate the relationship among testing, teaching, and assessment. The outer circle is teaching, the middle circle is assessment, and the smallest circle is test.

The relationship among testing, teaching, & assessment

The relationship among testing, teaching, & assessment

At the same time, during the practice activities, trainers are indeed observing the students’ performance and making various evaluation of each learner. They try to see how the learner’s performance compared  to previous performance, which aspects of performance that are better than others, whether the learner performing up to the expected potential, how the performance are compared to other learners in the same class, and so on. All these observation gives input for the trainers during his/her teaching.

Assessment can be formal and informal. There are many forms of informal assessment, like incidental comments and feedback to students, such as “Good job!”, “Did you say can or can’t?”, or just putting a smiley icon  on some written assignment. Formal assessments are exercises or procedures specifically designed to appraise the student achievement, using the skills and knowledge taught.

Is formal assessment the same as a test? I can say that all tests are formal assessments, but not all formal assessment is testing. For example, if we use student’s portfolio of materials as assessment of the attainment of course objectives, it’s difficult to call this procedure as “test”. A set of observation on student’s oral participation in a Speaking Class is not a test. Tests are usually time-constrained (several minutes or hours only) and draw on a limited sample of behavior.

To help trainers/teachers in evaluating teaching effectiveness, I think it is much better to use assessment rather than testing. Testing is just one-shot, mostly multiple-choice or standardized exam, while assessment is continuous and longer term. Tests focus on the “right” answer, and the results are scores. Assessments focus on open-ended, creative answer, and the outputs are individualized feedback. This way assessment can promote students’ autonomy by encouraging them to self-evaluate their progress, and pinpoint precisely areas needing further work for improvement. Assessment is oriented to process, and therefore fosters interactive performance by the trainers. By doing this way, teaching is a meaningful activity rather than just obtaining scores suffice for feedback, and students feel the enjoyment of learning without fear of failing on one single summative or final test. Teaching and learning is a complex process, and I think it should be assessed in an untimed and free-response format. Another thought to ponder by BPPK.

***

KEY ANSWER: 1. c     2. a     . d     4. b     5.a     6. c

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