Why don’t we do more pre-testing?

[cross-posted at LeaderTalk]

When I moved to Iowa from Minnesota, the Iowa Motor Vehicle Division
(MVD) didn’t test me before it issued me a driver’s license. It took into
account my long history of driving and my clean record and determined that I did
not need to take either a written or driving test. I did a quick vision check,
took one of those goofy photos, and I was all set.

Imagine, however, if the MVD, before it would issue me a license, wanted me
to sit through a series of classes intended to ‘teach’ me how to operate a car
and drive safely. I would have been completely annoyed. ‘Test me now!’ I would
have exclaimed vociferously. ‘I already know how to do this! Stop wasting my
time!’ By now you’re probably nodding your head in agreement, knowing that you’d
do the same thing in my situation. Although you’d rather not have to do the
written and driving tests again, you’d definitely rather be tested than sit
through hours of instruction on material you already know.

Unfortunately this is exactly what happens to our nation’s schoolchildren on
a daily basis. Millions of students regularly experience curricula and lessons
that address content and concepts with which they’re already familiar. It’s not
just the ‘talented and gifted’ kids; there are plenty of students who know the
material in a particular learning unit before they even start. They’re just
never given the chance to demonstrate their knowledge ahead of time. Nor do they
have the opportunity to request to be pre-tested.

What a colossal waste of time this is. Rather than
the joy of wrestling with and thinking about new material, students suffer
through yet another hour ‘learning’ old information. Rather than working with
children who are eager, interested learners, teachers suffer through yet another
group of disengaged students.

I wonder why we don’t care more about this? It’s one thing to
cover the required curriculum. It’s quite another to have students cover the
curriculum despite the fact that they already know it.
As a former
eighth grade teacher, I know how difficult it is to differentiate instruction.
But it’s relatively easy to do some simple pre-testing and at least make an
attempt at altering a ‘one size fits all’ lesson plan. If more teachers did this
on a regular basis, they might be surprised at how much instructional time they
gained back during the year. And of course they’d also have better baseline data
with which to assess student learning growth for each curricular unit. And did I
mention the message of respect for students that accompanies the practice of

Why don’t we do more pre-testing? Why is it so hard
to get teachers to buy into this?

13 Responses to “Why don’t we do more pre-testing?”

  1. We’re engaged in a similar discussion at the college level, but I’m almost as concerned with the gauntlet of tests that might arise from a pre-testing model…we’re more likely to develop a curriculum embedded assessment balanced with transcript analysis. Retention is certainly less of an issue in 8th graders, but engagement is at the heart of education in both groups.

  2. Our school board has changed its testing program for some of these reasons. We used to give a battery of board-wide tests to our students at the end of the school year, particularly at the end of cycle. Two years ago, we started doing our testing in September, mostly for students beginning a cycle. One reason was that results were often filed in June without being used for reporting purposes, and then never looked at by receiving teachers in the fall – what was the point? The other reason was that it made more sense to be doing assessment to to determine what students need to learn, rather than checking to see if they had learned it. I agree with you – no better way to turn a kid off learning than by teaching stuff they already know.

  3. Wouldn’t a system of “constant assessment” be the ideal? That way students’ knowledge would be evaluated at the beginning of the year, and they wouldn’t have their time wasted. And then as the year progresses, students who move faster through the content are accomodated for as well.

    Teachers, I’m sure, do this already to some extent.

    I agree, having some sort of pretest would make learning more efficient. It would definitely be an easy start to a more differentiated, adaptive educational experience for all students.

  4. @Pavel: I don’t think we need a huge battery of tests up front. Just a few short, strategic questions at the beginning of each learning unit probably will suffice. At the least, it would be better than what’s occurring now (which is usually nothing).

    @Tyler: What you describe is what should be occurring. Not just a beginning-of-the-year assessment but a continual, ongoing process throughout the school year. For any given unit, some students will be knowledgeable and some won’t but the groups will vary from unit to unit.

    You say that teachers already do this to some extent. I would argue that the percentage of teachers who continually pre-assess students’ knowledge AND adjust their instruction accordingly is pretty low.

  5. Kia Ora Scott

    As a distance educator who often could not easily do a summary test on a student the way I would in a classroom situation, I used to be faced with the dilemma of finding out where the student was at, before starting a course.

    As senior teacher some years ago I built into our year 13 Chemistry course a diagnostic test which was the first assignment. It took most students about an hour, but had the potential to save them from countless hours covering familiar ground.

    A year or so later, my follower and colleague designed a similar test for the year 12 Chemistry course which, on my recommendation, was designed as a self assessment rather than one that was determined by the teacher. This permitted the student to begin working on the course materials immediately after their own knowledge/skills assessment.

    But the significant issue here is really about your question “Why is it so hard to get teachers to buy into this?” I think the answer lies in the environment that teachers are working in.

    Without the resources and assistance to personalise (I’m aware this can mean many things) the learning for each student, as we do in the distance-ed environment, it becomes almost a momentous task to teach a class in a classroom in such a way that those who are able and skilled can be fast tracked and those who need assistance are taught the necessary catch-ups.

    While it is possible in huge schools to have several classes at the same year level for a subject and to sort the students into ability groups following a pre-test, it is a more common situation where there is only one class for a particular subject. The onus then falls on the teacher to provide solutions. Pretesting provides insight but it doesn’t always provide the teacher with easy solutions.

    Ka kite
    from Middle-earth

  6. I work with many teachers who are more than willing to try something like this, if only they had the knowledge about how to do it well and the time to do it right.

    As a support teacher, I frequently offer to my colleagues that if they will take the time to give the pretest, I’ll do the analysis and figure out where the curriculum can be compacted and where they can save time in their instruction. More often than not, after seeing how useful the data is, they are sold on the value of taking the “extra” time to pretest.

  7. Teaching to the large group is already a difficult task, having to differentiate because I now know some students don’t need what I have to offer makes it more difficult. We don’t have answers or support structures for teachers to questions such as these.
    -How do I create meaningful lessons for all students if I learn that some already know the material and have the skills? What do I do with those that know it?
    -Taken to the extreme – If kids demonstrate they can meet standard prior to teaching do we let them challenge the class? If yes, can we transition from a rigid system to a more fluent one that allows students to navigate a path that better meets their learning needs?

  8. @Mike: Is this a classic example of doing what’s most convenient for us rather than what’s best for kids? If so, the fault lies with both individual teachers and the systems in which they work. Mostly the systems (as Deming noted long ago)…

  9. I’m not sure if I would define the issue as the need to pre-test. My teachers are masters at differentiation because they have such strong data. We give our students the MAPS test– an on-line formative assessment system developed by the NorthWest Evaluation Association (NWEA). Our students are assessed each quarter but they don’t really know it because we refer to it as the “MAPS Game”. It’s a game! And from that data, our students– from first grade through 8th grade– are then able to chart their own growth, monitor their own progress, and adjust their goals. We follow this process religiously. All 42 teachers for over 1000 kids. The MAPS Game yields a score called a RIT. The RIT score defines 1) the specific competencies that have been mastered for their grade level…according to each state’s standards; 2) which competencies or skills the individual students needs to focus on next; and 3) which skills in the continuum they aren’t quite ready for next.
    So every teacher knows EXACTLY where each student is at any given time in the school year. And of course, the students and their parents know too.
    We then regroup our students, every day, according to their RIT scores. Don’t panic… we aren’t tracking them. In fact, these are highly fluid groupings that require tremendous coordination and collaboration among teachers. The students continue to rise to each new level as they master the preceding standards… in exactly the same way that martial arts students pass through colored belt levels on their way to an eventual black belt.
    When teachers have the expertise to use formative data, to differentiate instruction, to collaborate, and to create innovative ways to deliver services– schools are more effective in meeting virtually every child’s academic needs.

  10. Tena koutou!
    @Gerald, @Mike – The task is often not as huge as you think it might be. The keys are knowing the areas of the curriculum that the student needs to be familiar with and asking simple questions in a questionnaire about those.

    The follow up is to have an assignment booklet with skeletal teaching and examples for the student to address their needs. The first week of any course should always be spent revising anyway and this can perhaps follow into the next week if necessary. By which time all students will have had an opportunity to flex their wings in revision. Have tough assignments for the know-it-alls that will stretch their thinking, while the not-so-knowledgables can catch up. It should always be a fun time, that first week.

    The diagnostic tests, with follow-up teaching and examples, should be prepared beforehand for every major curriculum area in the subject. Most senior subject courses can be broken into 3 or 4 major areas that would each fit roughly into a term. The questionnaires should be first-day-back assignments after a term break.

    There is no reason why special diagnostics can’t be devised for spot areas – these may well have already identified themselves – and can take the shape of day-lesson catch-ups for those that need it. It is not unlike what used to be called ‘mastery learning’.

    @Mike – Done properly this technique can obviate the need, in some instances, to tailor separate lessons for individual groups, though this is not necessarily eliminated. Every good teacher should have a stock of helpful tricks to assist the lesser-able students.

    In achievement based standard assessment for instance, extension material for the potential excellent students can be given while helping others with material to assist them to achieve.

    @Scott – I agree with you (and Deming) that the system needs to be geared so that the teacher can best implement the techniques I’ve outlined here. One key factor is having (part of the system) HOD’s who subscribe to the diagnostic principle. They and their assistants should play a major role in creating and/or overseeing the provision of diagnostic test and follow-up material.

    Once a technique like this is bought into, it is hard to find a better way to help the needy students.

    Ka kite
    from Middle-earth

  11. If you are not familiar with The Learning Network (www.RCOwen.com), it is an organization that defines the learning cycle as:

    Evaluate (the assessment results)
    (student learns)

    then start over assessing
    Teachers will not be teaching a whole class of students at once in a lecture UNLESS all students showed limited knowledge/ability on a particular objective.
    Small groups and individual conferences will be the main method of instruction.

    Management is difficult though.

  12. What if we take this idea to the state level? I wonder how many students could pass the end-of-the-year state test in September?

  13. Kia ora Tracy

    What you have outlined is a teaching cycle. It is distinct from diagnostic testing.

    Diagnostic testing permits the identification of areas of skills/knowledge deficiency in a particular student or a group of students. Establishing this early and before a course or major part of a course is underway permits steps to be taken to bring an individual or group up to speed in key prerequisite learning.

    It has a number of advantages over following a cycle from the beginning like the one you listed.

    1 it is personalised since it attends to the needs of the individual.

    2 it does not take up other students’ time who may have to sit through teaching of known areas of learning brought about by catering for specific knowledge area deficiencies in a few students.

    3 it assists smoother continuity of teaching permitting the tailoring of the learning material to best meet the needs of all students in a course.

    4 it can also cater for a student or group of students who enter part-way in a course so that their needs are identified and remedied so they can follow with the class as soon as possible and with minimum disruption to others.

    Ka kite
    from Middle-earth

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