How School Works (or Doesn’t): Standardized Testing pt. 3

This is the third post from a 4-part series on Standardized Testing. The group includes Megan Coleman, Rebecca Hamilton, Rocielle Perez and Jen Watt.

Last week, we had some guests from Northwest Evaluation Association join us in class for a discussion around student assessments. We heard about the differences between adaptive assessments and standardized tests, ways in which assessments can be used to inform instruction and how bias and sensitivity can affect each test item and/or student who takes an assessment.

Adaptive assessment is a type of testing in which the questions presented to the test-taker are selected on the basis of the previous responses. Correct answers lead to harder questions; incorrect answers lead to easier questions. Adaptive assessments require special procedures for computing students’ scores because so many different combinations of questions are possible. Standardized assessments are tests in which the content and format of the test are controlled to make them the same for all students. Controls also include the conditions of the test such as timing, directions, use of calculators. Exceptions may be made for test takers with disabilities.

Assessments can be used to inform instruction by assessing a student’s skills before and during instruction. Testing a student’s skills prior to instruction (at the beginning of the school year, for example) allows the teacher to plan an effective strategy for each student or group of students. Testing during instruction (at the midpoint of the school year) allows the teacher to see if the instruction is effective and if they need to make any adjustments. Using assessments at various stages of instruction and then utilizing the results to plan a strategy is called formative assessment. There are other components of formative assessment that can be used in conjunction with tests to get a full picture of where a student is performing. Some examples are: observations, peer and self assessments, discussion, questioning and journaling. In contrast, summative assessment is typically used only after instruction to determine whether it has been effective. 

When thinking about test bias and sensitivity, it is absolutely necessary to avoid unfair barriers to success based on differences in knowledge unrelated to the purpose of the test. Some examples of this include:


Words and phenomena limited to a region or certain regions of the country and words that carry different meanings in different regions (e.g., “hero” for “sandwich,” “snow days” at school, “tonic” or “pop” for “soda,” “muffler” as an article of clothing, “bubbler” for “water fountain.”)


Test items requiring knowledge of any particular religion are unfair. For example, to say that something is “as colorful as an Easter egg” may be an unfamiliar comparison for some students.

Holidays and Birthdays

Not all students will be familiar with every religious or quasi-religious holiday (e.g., Halloween) and not all students celebrate birthdays. Mention of holidays and birthdays is acceptable as long as all of the information necessary to answer items is included in the test item but it is important to consider how this may impact student performance.

Before this class discussion, the issue of test bias and sensitivity had never really occurred to me and it is very interesting to consider how every aspect of a test item can influence the way a student answers – from language used within the test item to the topics that are covered throughout the entire test.

After exploring these topics through our class discussion and being able to read more about the different type of assessment, I wonder: if teachers are already overwhelmed with the content they are responsible for teaching, class size and the ever-changing demands of each student, how can they move toward utilizing formative assessments to benefit their students (and themselves)?





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