The Power of the Practice Test

As my math class comes to the end of our first unit, I'm preparing students for our final unit test through a practice test. I'm a big fan of project based learning and alternative assessments, but old school summative assessments are the most reliable form of measuring student learning and lets face it: students need to learn good test preparation for high school and college.

An overemphasis on testing is all the rage in the education blogosphere. Testing and more testing seems to be the bane of many educators and parents alike. However, if done well, tests can give some valuable insight through data indicators of student learning. In many schools, the solution is unfortunately more testing, but I think that testing can be an opportunity for helping identify student weaknesses. Unfortunately, they often happen after they're administered.

Offering a Practice Test
A couple of years ago, I started offering a "practice test" before all my major assessments. I collected data on student achievement and found that students did far better on my end of unit tests after doing a practice test ahead of time. Obviously, they take time and effort to develop and if your curriculum is tight, you might find the time a luxury. However, in addition to higher scores from my own data, students too felt by the end of the year that their use was invaluable.

Tips for Developing Practice Tests
  • Have the practice test be similar to, but not the same as the final test. The key in this is that there is "transfer" of skill and abilities from one to the other. No one wants to "teach to the test" but having similar problems is great preparation afterwards.
  • Develop high quality assessments. Most math curriculums will have standards regarding mathematical reasoning and it is these standards which students will most likely practice in life. We want students to develop into good problem solvers, and although there will be some numerical problems, having open ended word problems with more than one correct answer is a great measure of a student's ability to utilize problem solving strategies.
  • Have some "essential questions" for student to reflect on. We use "Understanding by Design" curriculum with some overarching questions that tie into the big ideas of each unit. The questions are open ended, and inquisitive. I use "Google Docs" and have each student keep track of their learning. With "Google Docs" each student can answer essential questions on their own document and have a record of the curriculum. 
  • Allow time to debrief the practice test. The practice test is the last homework assignment of the unit and we'll spend the entire period answering essential questions, self-grading the practice test with the answer key, and having a final meet with the teacher. I have a review packet for interested students, but the purpose of having a whole class session is for students to have one more opportunity to get that final "OK". I can review the student's curriculum guide, mid unit quiz, practice test, old assignments and make sure that all students feel more confident. 
Offering a practice test will not help every student immediately. I've found that some students take a few units to realize its power and usefulness. I've had a few students few the years that felt they needed to inflate their practice test scores (even though they're not graded) in an effort to look good and then do poorly on the final test later. These disparities brought student to my attention and statistically, and eventually, I learned ways to help their confidence and skills. Class averages were ALWAYS higher on the final test following a similar practice test so I concluded that it was a great learning tool, one that I learned to always make time for.

As we're currently using data to help drive instructional practices, this is an easy one for educators to do. Consider using a practice test for an upcoming unit or in preparation for a project. If you use the same assessment compare the scores from a unit from which you offered a practice test and another from a unit you did not.

Related Posts
Understanding: If it's demonstrated once, is it enough?
Targeting Instruction with Google Docs
My Curriculums
Action Research on Grade 7 Grading Practices 2012-2013

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