Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Tests Tests and More Tests

I know and have lived (like everyone else) the variety of stresses surrounding testing (assessing) students. I also know I hate when others claim that THEIR method beats all and you should, need to, must try it and if you don't then you're failing your kids and bla bla bla and what are you waiting for? Superman? ar ar ar ar.

I also know I've lived the horrors of even the word "retest". I'd never heard of it when I started teaching in New Jersey. My first year in Texas, one of my first math tests I gave, AS I HANDED IT OUT, a students asked me, "when is the retest?" I scrunched up my confused face and said there was no retest. That was the start of my journey. Then I got indoctrinated (or desensitized or whatever) and started giving retests in various forms:

* one retest only and you could keep your highest grade of the two tests
* only retesting if you've done all your homework
* averaging of the test and retest grades

None of it ever sat well with me. Then as I've mentioned before, this past summer I did various types of reading (blogs, books, ASCD magazines...) and something clicked for me.

My results are not globally stunning (I calculated the average final exam grade of my 3 geometry classes ... without curving what-so-ever), and they were roughly: 71%, 80%, and 76% (stem and leaf plot, I love you). But this was the FIRST time this happened for me with my "regular" classes. I'm guessing before I used to have final exam grade averages of 60% or lower.

Two commenters asked about details, so I thought I'd combine my responses here.

First of all, I make up all my own tests. I've been fortunate enough to work in schools and with people where this is the norm and/or this is okay. I'd hate to be forced to administer someone else's test. Every class is different, and you focus on different things when you teach. I comb through what they've learned and what types of problems we had done for homework and through the bazillion of math texts I've amassed from the years of teaching and through the Internet, etc. Then I make up my tests. I make up new tests every year, and sometimes if I've taught a topic before I cut and paste old test problems. We hand back all our tests and the students can keep them.

Here's what I've been doing this year in my regular geometry class (though it's called preAP).

I give about 2 tests every 6 weeks (that's our grading period, and I teach on block schedule). I made it so that the 1st test is in about week one or two of the 6 weeks, and the 2nd test is about the 4th week. This gives them time to come in and study with me and reassess. They have until the end of the 6 weeks to finish any retests of that marking period. Here is a rough outline of my last geometry test:

Section A: I had one problem with a "complicated" triangle/parallel lines type picture with some angles written in, and they had to find the measures of various missing angles.

Section B: I had a diagram with 4 intersecting lines with angles labeled (think tic-tac-toe), and 4 questions:
1. name 2 sets of corresponding angles
2. name 2 sets of alternate interior angles
3. .... alt ext
4. same side int
oh, and by the way, make sure you use each of the 16 angles at least once.

Section C:
I had portions of proofs with statements labeled, and they had to give me the reason/theorem/postulate/definition we could conclude various things.

Section D: I had 2 questions that they needed to use algebra with to find the values of various angles.

Section E: a question about lines (review) .... given an equation, find 4 points on the line .... or something like that. P.S. this is another reason I'm loving this retesting thing, because I don't feel guilty reviewing algebra, and it's forcing them to get it to stick in their heads.

Each section was worth 10 points regardless of the number of questions in the section. I graded roughly as follows:

They have no clue what they're doing: 0
They started out right but tanked early: 3-5
They started out right but tanked late in the problem: 5-7
They knew what they were doing but made a careless error: 8-9
They nailed it: 10

Those are just rough guides. I just asked myself as I penned in the grade, "do they know it or not and to what degree?".

Then the students had the opportunity to come in and retest for each section as many times as they wanted to get an ultimate final grade of 8 out of 10 on a section. I made up little 1/2 sheets of tests for each of the sections and made various versions and kept a store of them near me. With geometry (and maybe just so far), since I've taught it for so long, it was not too bad for me to make up the retests. And usually I could grade it that night or on the spot and quickly update GradeSpeed (that had 5 different columns for the tests). I kept the retests, so that I could reuse the problems for different kids on different days.

I'm guessing my success with it so far is that this forces the kids to go over and over something until they get it. And again, I'm lucky I only do this with roughly 50 total kids, AND some of them do great the 1st test and don't come in for retests. Again, this is what is working for me and my style and my kids and my situation.

I mentioned that I'm learning JAVA with that "Head First" book. This has also gotten me thinking about this retesting/relearning/learning situation. I'm guilty of being on the teaching treadmill: "learn" a topic one class, practice it for homework, move on to another topic the next class. Repeat until the test. Ackh! I know I've vowed to change my ways, and here I am vowing again ... slow learner. BUT.

First of all, I don't consider myself stupid or a slow learner, and yet when I'm going through that JAVA book (18 chapters, currently on chapter 9, doing about a chapter a day, roughly) .... I find myself scrunching my face in the "what was that????" action on things they've mentioned way back in a previous chapter that made perfect sense, and then they're just using it as a given currently and I'm wide-eyed with the deer/headlight thing going on as I flip back a few pages to refresh my memory on what's what. Then the, "oh yea, THAT", expression, and I move on.

That got me thinking about my kids. We'll go over something, practice, do homework, move on, and then when I mention or expect them to have instant recall on something later, they do what I just described above. AND I don't do it out loud or with any facial expressions, but I've been guilty of thinking in the past, "ackh! we did that, you know that, I taught that, get ON with it". Or I'm on my internal high horse thinking, "welllllll, they just need to see it several times, bless their hearts." Ew! I obviously have been served a lesson. If you happen to be human and are learning something new, you need to see it over and over and over again in various forms and that'll give it more chances to stick.

So all this to say, that maybe my new-found "success" is because this mechanism of my retesting is allowing the kids to spend more time with the topics than they have in the past.


  1. "If you happen to be human and are learning something new, you need to see it over and over and over again in various forms and that'll give it more chances to stick."

    It isn't the seeing that will make it stick, it is the using.

    That is why I like the Singapore Primary Math series for elementary school math. Every section has multi-step problems that rely on using stuff from previous chapters. There is no learn-it-earn-the-points-forget-it cycle the the one-topic-at-a-time presentation of US math books engender.

  2. Yes, of course you're right, students must use the new skills and get their hands dirty. I went to the Singapore math website, and it looks like there is a geometry text resource that's also on Amazon.com. Thanks for the potential new tool.

  3. Thanks for posting your test format. I have been thinking about how to write my final. I like what you have done. I don't believe in multiple choice, and I felt as though I might have to do one for the final to cover everything, but with format, I think I can get away with not giving multiple choice.

  4. Here's what's helped me be more efficient grading finals. Oh, and by the way, the test format I showed was JUST for my regular tests, not the final .... though I guess I could have done that, too.

    On my final, I had no multiple choice problems. What I did, though, is put a box for each problem answer all the way down the left side of the paper. I told the students that the answer HAD to be in the box to be graded. They could show their work anywhere (on the paper or on scratch paper neatly labeled).

    In this way, I saved time that I'd have to waste hunting all over the page for their answer. Now, they were all neatly down in one column.

    Good luck.

  5. Anonymous2:11 PM

    Thank you for taking the time and effort to post this process. I have been thinking about sectioning my tests in such a way that students can have a clearer picture of what they do and don't know (even knowing the terms - what an idea).