With all the testing going on these days, it's hard to imagine doing more. But some schools are finding that assessing students throughout the year with short tests can improve learning and better prepare kids for the big tests. The idea is backed up by research.
To better prepare students for high-stakes tests -- both in terms of content and test-taking skills -- some districts have turned to assessing students periodically with short tests.
According to one educational researcher, this process not only helps teachers evaluate students' skills, but also is an effective tool for helping students store information in long-term memory.
The Fairfax County (Virginia) Public Schools turned to more frequent assessments in part because officials reportedly noted that in some schools minority students were scoring lower on standardized tests than non-minority students. Administrators thought additional testing could help pinpoint areas in which all students were struggling.
"We needed a way to gauge students' progress and see what they could and could not do and improve learning," said Pat Fege, the district's language arts coordinator. "If a student doesn't know something, the teacher can plan to address the need. If they do know something, the teacher can think of ways to enrich learning."
Last year was the first year of more frequent testing for all schools, according to Fege. Elementary schools can use a standardized test, the Benchmark Assessment Reporting Tool (BART), up to four times a year in grades 3-6. These tests are about three-fourths the length of the state's tests, the Standards of Learning (SOL).
Students do see the results of the BART exams, Fege said. The results also give teachers more information on student progress.
"Some teachers use other assessment tools, often as a follow-up to what they see on BART, if a child is having difficulty with certain questions," she added. "It's especially important in schools where kids are having trouble."
PART OF THE ROUTINE
At Hollin Meadows Science and Math Focus School the interim testing is done within the normal class period and is designed to be part of the regular teaching and learning cycle, said principal Jon Gates. Tests are given about every three weeks in math, and every four- to-six weeks in reading and language arts.
"We want to know if students are learning," Gates told Education World. "If we wait until the end of the year, when the state tests are given, it's too late. This is part of our monitoring process. It allows us to address the needs of struggling learners."
Teachers spend very little time reviewing for these tests. "We want students to do their best, but we don't want to generate anxiety," he said. "Students know the tests are evaluative. The tests don't really count toward their grades -- the idea is to determine what we need to do to help kids' succeed."
Hollin Meadows has been using interim testing for about four years, and has seen an increase in student scores on state tests, Gates added.
BENEFITS TO STUDENTS
Testing students more frequently using shorter exams is one of the best ways to help students commit information to long-term memory, according to Dr. Bruce W. Tuckman, professor of education and director of the Walter E. Dennis Learning Center at Ohio State University.
In studies with college students and eighth graders, Dr. Tuckman found that students were more likely to learn the material if they knew they were going to be tested periodically. Also, studying smaller blocks of information enabled students to really remember the material, as opposed to trying to learn a whole unit's worth of material for one big test.
"Students who took more frequent tests, at the end of sections, did significantly better on end-of-unit tests," according to Dr. Tuckman.
The interim tests both serve as a motivation for students to learn the material and a diagnostic tool to help teachers determine what students have mastered and the concepts with which they are having difficulty, Dr. Tuckman noted.
"It's a good way to get stuff in long-term memory," he said. "You remember the information because you don't have to process so much at one time. There is just no way to process so much information to get it into long-term memory. It's much better to process information on a weekly basis. If you process part of the information over a long period of time, you may just need to do some studying to refresh your memory [for an end-of-unit test]."
ONLINE TESTING SPEEDS RESULTS
Teachers in Oregon also are seeing the benefits of tests that can be administered several times a year and scored quickly. All of the state's standardized tests, except for essays, have been moved online, allowing teachers and students to see their scores almost immediately after the tests are submitted, said Gene Evans, director of communications for the Oregon Department of Education. The new online testing service, called Technology Enhanced Student Assessment (TESA), was developed in-house by department of education staff members.
This is the first year that all schools have been required to conduct their testing online, Evans told Education World. The state has seen an improvement in test scores since implementing the program. Some educators think that TESA itself is behind the increase, while others attribute it to teachers' ability to review scores quickly and target instruction.
Teachers can administer the state tests three times -- in the fall, winter, and spring. The highest set of scores for each student, which usually are the spring scores, are the ones that are counted, according to Evans.
Teachers can review how students performed on each section of the tests, and adjust their lessons based on the results, he said.
While the online testing system is less expensive than the traditional paper and pencil method, the benefits to students also were fundamental to implementing TESA, said Evans. "The ability to have immediate feedback is good for the educators," he said. "Now that it is working, I don't think that anyone would go back to paper and pencil."