In a webinar, Professor Gavin Brown from the University of Auckland discussed the educational benefits of tests, and explored the issue of test anxiety. Drawing on his extensive experience as one of the developers of New Zealand’s e-asTTle, system, Professor Brown described the features of effective tests, and offered guidance on how teachers can use tests to better inform their teaching.
The purpose of educational tests is to demonstrate what students can and cannot do independently. While test data may be used for a number of purposes in educational settings, tests are most valuable as diagnostic tools to provide insight for teachers. Tests that only provide a score and a rank order are of limited value, but well-designed tests provide a wealth of data about individual students as well the class as a cohort. These data contain vital information for teachers about how to design teaching and learning programmes, although teachers need support and resourcing to design tests and interpret test data effectively.
Tests can provide valuable baseline data as well as demonstrating the extent to which students have mastered the content being taught. At the beginning of a new topic or unit of work, a test will provide teachers with a picture of students’ current level of knowledge and skill relative to the topic. Similarly, tests given at the end of a unit of work can show teachers what each student has mastered, and what they still do not understand or cannot do independently. Most students should score between 65% and 90% on a mastery test, and those who fall below this threshold should be offered additional instruction and support to master the content.
Test anxiety is an important consideration, but teachers can help students learn to manage and use it. It is helpful for students to experience a small amount of anxiety, as it prompts them to take assessment seriously and to prepare for it, but too much anxiety can be paralysing and have a negative effect on performance. While the optimum level of anxiety will vary from student to student, teachers can support students to recognise, manage, and use their anxiety to improve their performance. One of the best ways to do this is to provide ample practice of test-taking in low-stakes conditions, so that students feel familiar with what to expect. Learning to cope with moderate levels of stress and anxiety is an important life skill.
Adaptations and accommodations are essential for some students. Similarly, students are entitled to be tested at the level at which they are being taught, rather than at their year level. In New Zealand, the NZQA provides a range of options for students who may need additional support when taking tests and sitting exams.