When some parents hear the word “testing” they think, “clear your desk and take out your No. 2 pencil.” They imagine testing to be what happens at the end of the year when students are faced with blue books and bubble sheets.
As a public school teacher, I use different types of testing throughout the year. For example, when I taught my second graders how to tell time on an analog clock, I handed out models of clocks and called out different times. The students moved the hands to express each one, and would hold up their clocks so I could check who was having trouble. This is one type of testing. It gave me feedback on student learning during the lesson and helped me tailor my instruction in real time.
What testing offers me, as a teacher, is information about where students are in their learning and insights that guide me as I move forward with my lesson plans.
As a parent, I get testing information on my two boys, Jace (13) and Luke (10), throughout the school year. I use the feedback from different forms of testing — grades on assignments, an analysis of a benchmark test, course grades, notes from their teacher, and standardized test results — to track the progress that they are making.
What testing offers me, as a parent, is an understanding of how my boys are doing academically. It gives me insight into their performance on a particular assignment, lets me compare my kids’ performance against their target goals, and allows me to assess their need for supplementary help. Test results are a way for me to have eyes on my kids’ classrooms even though I am not there. I value knowing where my boys excel and where they struggle, since this information guides what we focus on when we do homework at the kitchen table.
Understanding the different types of testing, the kinds of results they provide, and how they complement one another will help parents use this information in the best way to help their children learn.
Different Types of Testing
There are four types of testing in schools today — diagnostic, formative, benchmark, and summative. What purpose does each serve? How should parents use them and interpret the feedback from them?
1. Diagnostic Testing
This testing is used to “diagnose” what a student knows and does not know. Diagnostic testing typically happens at the start of a new phase of education, like when students will start learning a new unit. The test covers topics students will be taught in the upcoming lessons.
Teachers use diagnostic testing information to guide what and how they teach. For example, they will plan to spend more time on the skills that students struggled with most on the diagnostic test. If students did particularly well on a given section, on the other hand, they may cover that content more quickly in class. Students are not expected to have mastered all the information in a diagnostic test.
Diagnostic testing can be a helpful tool for parents. The feedback my kids receive on these tests lets me know what kind of content they will be focusing on in class and lets me anticipate which skills or areas they may have trouble with.
2. Formative Testing
This type of testing is used to gauge student learning during the lesson. It is used throughout a lecture and designed to give students the opportunity to demonstrate that they have understood the material, like in the example of the clock activity mentioned above. This informal, low-stakes testing happens in an ongoing manner, and student performance on formative testing tends to get better as a lesson progresses.
Schools normally do not send home reports on formative testing, but it is an important part of teaching and learning. If you help your children with their homework, you are likely using a version of formative testing as you work together. For example, while watching my son, Luke, measure objects using inches and centimeters this week, I was able to see when he chose the wrong unit or when he did not start the measurement at the zero point on the tape measure. That was a form of formative testing. I find it helpful as a parent because it lets me correct any mistakes before they become habits for my sons.
3. Benchmark Testing
This testing is used to check whether students have mastered a unit of content. Benchmark testing is given during or after a classroom focuses on a section of material, and covers either a part or all of the content has been taught up to that time. The assessments are designed to let teachers know whether students have understood the material that’s been covered.
Unlike diagnostic testing, students are expected to have mastered material on benchmark tests, since they covers what the children have been focusing on in the classroom. Parents will often receive feedback about how their children have grasped each skill assessed on a benchmark test. This feedback is very important to me as a parent, since it gives me insight into exactly which concepts my boys did not master. Results are broken down by skills, so if I want to further review a topic with my boys, I can find corresponding lessons, videos, or games online, or ask their teachers for resources.
4. Summative Testing
This testing is used as a checkpoint at the end of the year or course to assess how much content students learned overall. This type of testing is similar to benchmark testing, but instead of only covering one unit, it cumulatively covers everything students have been spending time on throughout the year.
These tests are given — using the same process — to all students in a classroom, school, or state, so that everyone has an equal opportunity to demonstrate what they know and what they can do. Students are expected to demonstrate their ability to perform at a level prescribed as the proficiency standard for the test.
Since summative tests cover the full range of concepts for a given grade level, they are not able to assess any one concept deeply. So, the feedback is not nearly as rich or constructive as feedback from a diagnostic or formative test. Instead, these tests serve as a final check that students learned what was expected of them in a given unit.
As a parent, I consider summative testing a confirmation about what I should already know about my sons’ performance. I don’t expect to be surprised by the results, given the regular feedback I have been given in the form of diagnostic, formative, and benchmark testing throughout the year.
Combining Test Results
We need a balance of the four different types of testing in order to get a holistic view of our children’s academic performance. Each type of test differs according to its purpose, timing, skill coverage, and expectations of students.
Though each type offers important feedback, the real value is in putting all that data together. First, using a diagnostic test, you can gauge what a student already knows and what she will need to learn in the upcoming unit. Next, formative tests help teachers and parents monitor the progress a student is making on a daily basis. Then, a benchmark test can be used as an early indicator of whether students have met the lesson’s goals, allowing parents and teachers to reteach concepts that the student may be struggling with. Ideally, when heading into the summative testing, teachers and parents should already know the extent to which a student has learned the material. The summative testing provides that final confirmation.
Hopefully, the next time parents hear the word testing, they don’t just think of summative testing. Instead, they think of all four types and the value of putting the feedback from them together to get a richer, more thorough understanding of their child’s progress.