Should we be testing in schools?

In early October, I was given the opportunity to create and administer a test for a grade 12 Chemistry class. This was an assignment given by my science methods professor. The purpose of the assignment was to gauge students’ knowledge of the content, given what they should know about chemistry from their previous Science 10 and Chemistry 11 class. The test was a mixture of multiple choice and written questions. We had to be mindful of the difficulty of the questions, varying them from easy, medium, to a few difficult ones. The outcome of this experience was very surprising.

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This was my first taste at creating an assessment item for students. It was much more difficult than expected as the chemist inside of me thought “these kids are in chemistry 12, they should know a lot by now”. I reviewed the previous PLO’s for science 10 and Chemistry 11 to find content to include in my test. I could have just chosen random content from each PLO and made questions out of them, but I wanted to find out more about these students. Most of the questions were popular misconceptions in lower level Chemistry. I wanted to see if by Chemistry 12 if any misunderstandings were corrected. The rest of the questions were simple to boost their confidence.

It seems like writing a multiple-choice exam is much easier than designing one. Coming up with the questions was simple, but coming up with the a-d options was somewhat difficult. I didn’t want the options to be too obviously wrong or too similar to the correct answer. It took a bit more time than expected. The written section was very easy to write up as these questions were open ended. I didn’t have to be so specific. For example, one question was “How is the mole used in Chemistry? You can use analogies and other means to justify your answer.”

On the day I administered the test, I gave clear instructions on how to answer the questions and what topics were on the test. I told them that the test was not for marks and anonymous. They had 15-20 minutes to complete the test and had to hand it in once they were finished.

To my amazement, the students were extremely anxious to write the test. Even though their names weren’t going to be on the test and it wasn’t for marks, the students were very unsettled. Some students were spotted cheating off one another. Others were flipping through the pages in panic and anxiously shaking their legs. Some students handed in the test very quickly without answering any of the written questions, while most the students needed extra time to ensure they answered all the questions to the best of their ability.

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Since the students didn’t have the opportunity to prep for the test, and more specifically, prepping for the exact questions, it seemed to trigger panic. It puts into question: are we testing students for knowledge or are we testing for progress and grades? The questions on the test came straight from the previous PLO’s. I expected them to at least get all the simple questions correct.

This experience informs my future teaching as I am unsure how I feel about testing. The anxiety it puts on students definitely hinders their ability to fully represent their understanding. The results of the test showed half the students understood “basic” Chemistry. Most students still had misconceptions about basic chemistry. I am sure if I allowed the students to demonstrate their understanding through a take home assignment the results would have been much better. Perhaps having a group discussion to stimulate their previous knowledge would have surfaced what the class previously knew about Chemistry.

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