The Challenge of Summative Assessments. 

In general, tests should be formative in nature, an integrated part of the learning process.  However, as described above, some assessments tend to be summative: a snapshot of a student’s progress.  Nevertheless, all tests are excellent opportunities for differentiated learning. The review process leading up to the test should be designed to be responsive to each student’s individual needs.

The Practice Test. 

The first step in preparing for a exam is to assess student readiness.  It is essential that each student identify what he has learned and what he doesn't know yet.  A practice test of all the major concepts and skills is needed to determine how he should prepare for the real test.

Like all checkups, the practice test provides feedback both for the student and for you;  he needs to know what specific work to do to prepare for the test, and you need to know what role you will play in the review process.  If, for instance, there are topics that a large number of students haven’t mastered, a whole class review may be called for. If a smaller number of students are struggling with a different topic, it may be useful for you to run a workshop on that topic for those students.

Here are some guidelines for creating the practice test:

  • The test should address all the major concepts and skills on the exam - there should be no big surprises.

  • It must be as brief as possible.  The more time spent taking, grading, and going over the test, the less time remains for the actual review process.

  • Like all checkups, the practice test should not be graded.  Its sole purpose is to steer each student’s review process. Feedback is more effective when it is separated from grades.

  • The practice test can be used to prepare students for both the content and the format of the test.  Getting accustomed to the format is particularly important for high stakes tests such as the ACT and AP exams.

  • The practice test can be made as similar to the actual exam as needed.  Taking previous ACT or AP exams, for instance, is excellent preparation for the real thing.  

The idea of a practice test should be introduced to students as a way for each of them to identify what they need to work on during the review period.

Evaluating and Reviewing the Practice Test. 

How the test is evaluated and used depends on how self-directed your students are.  If students are accustomed to reviewing tests in study groups, it is optimal to give them answer keys as soon as they have finished taking the test and have them self-evaluate it immediately. They can then discuss the questions they got wrong within their study group.

If they are not yet independent enough to self-evaluate, you can evaluate their work (remember, no grades) after class and hand the tests back the next day, at which time students can review them in groups, if that’s appropriate.  Such a review will often result in useful learning, but as a minimum, it should identify specifically what each student must work on to prepare for the test.

Differentiated Exam Prep.

A central purpose of the practice test is to lead to an individualized review process.  For every area that a student struggled with on the practice test, there needs to be specific work available.  A review packet can be created to include all such work. Obviously, each student should only do those parts of the packet that are useful for him.

One approach to organizing the review process is to create a mini-contract that acts as a cover sheet for the review packet and includes all its contents.  The contract can link the specific problems the student got wrong on the practice test with the appropriate items in the packet.

If students are sufficiently independent and self-directed, they can choose what work they need to do by themselves.  If they are not ready to do this, you can retain complete control over directing their review process. While you are evaluating their practice test, you can mark the review contract to indicate which items in the review packet they should do.  The next day, you can hand the contract, the review packet, and the practice test back at the same time.

Some guidelines on creating the review contract and materials:

  • The items available in a review contract need to reflect all the content found on the practice test.  If a student got a problem on the practice test wrong, there should be a way for him to learn from his mistake.

  • The items in the review contract can often be review materials you already have.  Rather than having every student review every aspect of the exam, however, the review contract allows him to focus specifically on those areas that he still needs to work on.

  • If you have been using contracts throughout the year, the review contract for a semester exam can also include items from previous contracts.

  • Leave blanks in the review contract so that items can be added as needed, either by the teacher or the student in conversation with the teacher.  This is particularly important the first few times this approach is tried.

  • A review contract should also include enrichment items so students who did well on the practice test can deepen their mastery.  Those students can serve as “resident experts” or tutors for students who are struggling. A contract should offer peer tutoring as an optional item for such students to encourage them to share the wealth.

  • Finally, review contract items can include outside support, such as attending teacher review sessions or peer tutoring outside of class, as well as the use of study centers or any other school-wide support.

The review process itself may consist of open work time that allows students to pursue whatever contract items they need. This work can be done individually or in groups.  It can also be done in part as homework.

In addition, the review process should encourage conversational learning whenever appropriate.  Teacher-generated questions about the review packet can serve as springboards for conversations within study groups or other ad hoc groups.  There can be workshops to reteach specific contract items. These can be led by the teacher or by students who are proficient in that content.

Collective Cramming. 

In general, one of your most important tasks as a teacher is to help students replace cramming with genuine learning.  However, there are circumstances when cramming is appropriate and should be embraced.

If part or all of the exam is standardized, for instance, there may be topics on it that you have not taught in your class.  Helping students do well on those topics means introducing them as quickly and effectively as possible to the material, knowing that they may not genuinely learn much in the process.  In other words, you are helping them cram for the test.

This is admittedly teaching to the test.  However, it can be argued that as long as standardized tests are assessing material that does not fit into the course you are teaching, that is exactly what is called for.  A great deal of test prep for standardized tests like the ACT or AP exams is essentially cramming. Such reviews are common, and even required. No one truly expects students to absorb and remember the new material learned these during test prep sessions.

Since cramming violates the basic philosophy you espouse, you should discuss why you are doing it with your students.  The conversation can begin with an honest statement: you are required to give this particular test and cannot fully control what is on it.  Your highest priority as a teacher has been to make sure that students are genuinely learning the material, rather than moving through the content at the pace necessary to cover everything on the exam.  Rather than penalize students for that decision, your goal is to help everyone to do as well on the test as possible. In other words, for topics on the test that have not been covered in class, cramming needs to become a common purpose, a group project.  Your collective goal is for everyone to do as well on the test as possible, and that means putting those topics into working memory. As a fringe benefit, some students will be ready and able to genuinely learn those topics during the brief time allotted for them.