What is a test? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines tests as “a series of questions or exercises for measuring the skill, knowledge, intelligence, capacities, or aptitudes of an individual or group.” Most tests are a formal series of questions that students are required to answer without assistance from other people and without relying on other material.
Tests aren’t limited to courses in schools and they are frequently used in everyday life. For example, cashiers who work for large grocery stores are expected to know the product codes for all the fruits and vegetables. In many cases, they are required to pass a formal test in order to work as a cashier. People who want a driver’s license are required to pass both a written test and a driving test before they are allowed to drive a car by themselves. And, if you are an immigrant seeking to become a citizen, you will find yourself studying for a citizenship test that you need to pass before being granted citizenship.
Because of the amount that students are expected to learn and because teaching is structured so that subsequent learning benefits from prior teaching and understanding, it is only reasonable to expect that there must be a systematic and fair way of assessing whether or not students are learning the material they have been taught. Such testing should occur both as the knowledge and skill are developing (what educators call formative evaluation) and when the knowledge and skill becomes, given practice and correction, secure and confident, shown by the students’ accurate demonstration or application of what has been learned (called summative evaluation).
If a class of Grade 5 students has spent several weeks learning how to perform long division using an algorithm, does it not make sense for them to show that they can actually do long division and apply it to real life situations like calculating the cost of items of food in a grocery store before moving on to other topics in mathematics? If a teacher has spent a couple of weeks teaching the history of the nation, the students should be able to identify the key people, events, and dates, and a formal unit test is certainly one way to have them do that.
Checklists, self-assessments, and group projects, have their place as forms of continuous, or formative, evaluation of knowledge and skills, partly because they help teachers plan and adapt their teaching to the needs of their students. But, while it is true that teachers are constantly assessing their students on an informal basis, these techniques alone are insufficient for the purposes of instruction in schools. A test administered after a topic has been taught with adequate time for students to practice the skills they have learned, is the most accurate, efficient, and fair method of determining whether the students have actually learned what they are supposed to have learned and possess a degree of independence in using or applying the knowledge and/or skills accurately.
This type of testing is essential, especially if a mandated curriculum is to be meaningful and if the public’s confidence in public schools is to be sustained. When it is important to know the degree of success of the student for subsequent, advanced learning, such as entry to a post-secondary program, then testing serves an important qualifying or credentialing purpose. Schools must be able to serve several purposes for testing and they cannot ignore the necessity to do it competently and fairly.
Choosing to forgo summative tests in schools would be similar to providing student drivers with several weeks of driving practice but not requiring them to actually drive a car during a driver’s test because they would have already demonstrated their ability to drive during the course they have been taking. The absurdity of this suggestion should make it clear why it makes no sense to abandon summative tests because they are one of the best tools for helping students demonstrate their learning and for teachers to monitor the success of their teaching.