To Test Or Not To Test: That Is The Question

I’ve been thinking about this post for a while now. This is a difficult one for me to write, as my thinking is still evolving on this topic, but I think that I need to share where I’m at. As teachers start to discuss the new Social Studies Curriculum Document more, the one question that I hear over and over again is, does inquiry mean that I can’t give a test? 

Here are my questions that come to mind (and they’re questions that have been in my head for a while now, but I’ve never actually said aloud or written down):

  • Why do we need to give a test?
  • What do we hope to find out from this test?
  • How will the test help the students?
  • How are we going to accommodate to ensure that all students are successful? How are we going to make changes to the test, but still set high expectations for all?
  • How will the test address all levels of the achievement chart?
  • How does the test address our school focus of voice, choice, and achievement for all?
  • If students are not successful on the test, what does this mean?

The truth is, I don’t know the answers to all of these questions. They’re the questions that I ask myself when I consider giving a test or a quiz though — in any subject — and they’re often the reasons that I decide on giving an in-class activity instead. Personally, I find that a  rich-task in class gives me more data about where students are at and where we need to go next than any test ever does. As Jonathan So, a teacher for the Peel District School Board, has said to me before, “A test gives a snapshot in time.” I want more than that!

As a Grade 5 teacher in Ontario, and with the knowledge that next year is an EQAO year, I’m aware that my lack of testing may be seen as a bad thing. My focus on inquiry this year though has helped me develop thinking skills in all of my students. I want my students to be thinkers. I want them to attempt new things. I want them to explore problems from different angles and suggest multiple solutions. I want them to be willing to take a risk, and I want to know that they will. All of these things will help students as they take any test, regardless of “practice situations.” The research on inquiry supports this, and I believe it!

What are your thoughts on tests? When do you give them, when do you not give them, and what do you use as alternatives? What do you do when students are not successful? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!


16 thoughts on “To Test Or Not To Test: That Is The Question

  1. You know that I can’t help but comment when you tangle such a meaty topic. As you quoted me saying, “a test is a snap shot” are they valid? “yes.” Are they meaningful? “yes.” Are they the only thing we use as assessment? “No” I think here lies the problem and shift that education has to take. When I was in school, even elementary, it was learn from the teacher and then spew forth the knowledge on some written task or assessment. Now we put a lot more emphasis on the process, then on the outcome. Not to say outcome isn’t important but what is more meaningful, that our students come away with knowledge or that they get an A on a magical piece of paper?

    I think that in elementary we have done a very good job at looking at the overall process of learning. Every task we do is an assessment and it shows the growth and understanding better then one snap shot. When we triangulate this data we get a better picture then one test and it’s unfortunate that we put all emphasis on that final test. I know personally, that it remember nothing about psychology even though I did fairly well on the course; however, Chaucer, I remember most themes, lines and even pge references. Why? Because in Chaucer I was able to talk, discuss and debate the ideas. In psych all I did was sit, listen and regirgate.

    As for test, I do them every now and then. Much less now that I am in primary but occasionally. I do them more as a growth of development. Do a pre and post for each unit. I also do a lot of projects (like the grinch story), presentations, and a lot of inquiry. I also find that have a learning trajectory or progression to be a better picture of assessment and it allows me to write my report cards in a quick and easy manner. With inquiry, you see what they can do, what they need to do and what you need to do to get them there. I also find that it lends itself to all students no matter what their abilities and you have a lot less failures (if you can call them that). I see them more as growth opportunities and so do my students. Thanks for the great post again.

    • Thanks for the comment, Jonathan! If I could just hit a “like button” on a comment and say, “I agree,” I’d do so here. My only question may be, why can’t the same thing be true in junior? I think that if I were to share this blog post with many teachers that I know, they would give few tests or quizzes to primary students, but feel that they’re necessary for junior and intermediate students. I’m not convinced! For some topics, I know that it’s difficult for students to share all of their learning in an assignment, and in that case, I’d be in favour of a test or a quiz. I’ve only given a couple of tests/quizzes first term to my Grade 5’s though, and I don’t expect to give many more in second term. Again, it will depend on the topic, and if I can get students to show me this knowledge in other ways. Maybe, most of all though, it will come down to which way is the most powerful way for students to show me this knowledge.

      I love the comment that Mike Moore made on Twitter. He said, “Absolutely test! But in which form? Interview? P and p? Project based? I consider it all testing.” Maybe it is all in the definition. If a test is just a way to, “show what you know,” then I’ve done a lot of testing this year. What do you think?


      • I like was Mike said. I agree whole heartily, a test is a summative assessment. However I think what has changed is that summative meant at the end of learning. With the new growing success we are seeing that the assessment practices are more then just diagnostic, formative and summative, like we learned in teachers college. It has become more as, for, of learning. You might say what is the difference but there is many differences. One being what Mike said, it is all assessment. It’s not just one or two pieces hear or there but a whole collection to make a picture.

        I also agree with you about perception that test should happen more in later grades. When I said I give less test I meant that I went from some to little. This might be that I am in primary or that I have just learned more about assessment. I still always do a pre and post. I like it more for research based information then anything else. When I taught jr my first yr I did tests only because my teaching partner did them. I slowly did less and less because they really didn’t show me what I needed to know. I think that we(teachers) feel that we are somehow preparing them for the future. That they have to learn how to take a test in order to be successful. Unfortunately, high school and university still have exams, so a part of that is true but I do know that university is starting to change. I also look at the real world and think, when do you ever have test to show your knowledge and understanding, almost never. You have performance appraisals and projects. You don’t get the job done you don’t have a job simple as that. I think we are in a transition phase right now ( and it may be for a while) as an older generation hangs on to traditions of the past, not because they were worth hanging on too but because that is the way we have always done it. What do you think?

        • Thanks for the reply, Jonathan! I think that you make fabulous points here. I wondered too about the idea of “preparing them for the future.” This came up during some discussions I had with colleagues. My response to them is the same thing that I’ll write here: “I can’t just look to what people are doing past this year. If I know that a test is not the right thing to do, then I’m not going to give one — even if that’s not a popular choice.”

          A couple of weeks ago, I gave my students a more traditional assessment for a variety of different reasons (I didn’t call it a test). It came from a program that our Board uses. This was very different than other activities I’ve done with my students before. The amazing thing watching the students though is that even though this wasn’t their traditional way of doing things this year, they used their THINKING skills to answer the questions and actually do quite well. I think that another activity would have given me more information than this type of assessment, but I did it anyway, and overall the students did great (despite a lack of preparation this year for these “traditional assessments”). Teaching students to “think” matters, and this is what I’m going to continue to focus on this year — whether it be through an in-class activity, test, or quiz.

          Thanks, as always, for the fabulous dialogue that continues to have me think about my teaching practices!


          • That’s the amazing thing about inquiry. When you teach kids to problem solve, think, adapt, and explain tests are nothing and they often do much better then those that cramed or had to “study.” Why because they understand the information, not only to they understand but they can recall what they had to do. How many times do we do a test and the next day forget it. Did that test prove anything besides, how much I could memorize before the test day? I also like kristy’s comment, have to do some digging there.

          • I absolutely agree with you, Jonathan! Inquiry produces these thinking skills that help students whether it be through a test or not a test.

            And now, based on Kristy’s comment too, I’m about to go and read some curriculum documents! I need to know if testing was mentioned or not mentioned. What a great idea to check!


  2. With the holidays approaching (and being home from school yesterday with the flu) I find I am in a very reflective mood, looking at the fall and deciding what I will change and what I will keep moving forward. Your post was bang on one of the things I have been questioning about my practise. (As a second year teacher, there is a lot I question about how I do what I do!)

    Ok, so long introduction aside, I don’t give a lot of tests, but I hadn’t really thought about why. Now I realize it’s because I prefer in-class tasks — that way I can see their thought process and ask questions. From those questions and conversations, I learn so much more about my students (how they approach a task, what they do if they’re stuck and, of course, that they know).

    Like you, I do occasional quizzes and tests, but a rich task gives so much bigger, clearer, more complete picture of my students.

    Thanks for making me think.

    • Sorry to hear you were sick, Mary! Thanks for sharing what you do and why. I think that this “why” part is so important. I know that there are people that disagree with me here, and there’s others that agree. That’s okay. I’m totally up for both thoughts, especially if either way, they can explain the “why.” It’s when we just say that we’re giving a test because we’ve always given a test, that I start to wonder if that’s the best thing to do.

      As I started blogging and joined Twitter a number of years ago, I began to realize even more how reflective practice is so important, and even when all educators may never agree on just one answer, the ability to question is equally important. Questions make us think, and as I ask these same questions to myself, I think more too.

      Thanks for weighing in!

  3. Great topic and conversation here. I think teachers should always be reflecting on what the best way to have students demonstrate their learning. Maybe sometimes that is a test, but probably more often than not, it’s not. Since I am a bit of a stickler for using those fabulous curriculae we are given as teachers to guide our instructional practices, it got me to wondering…does it comment anywhere in our curriculum about testing? Not our assessment guides (like Growing success in Ontario), but in the actual curriculum? It always has great examples for teachers to use to consider how to get students to demonstrate their learning and now I want to know if it ever mentions testing. Hmm. Further exploration is needed.

    • Thanks for your comment, Kristi! It’s funny as I’m constantly looking at the curriculum when it comes to expectations, but I never thought to look to it when it came to “testing” or “not testing.” I’m off to go and read some curriculum documents! 🙂 I’m very curious to see if testing is mentioned or not, and in what regard!


  4. I’m with you, with respect to the confusion around “tests” and “no tests”. I prefer assessing and evaluating my students using performance tasks…I try to make them fun and interesting but that doesn’t always happen. I too want them to be critical thinkers who justify their actions and ideas. I also recognize that for many of them, they would rather work with others rather than on their own. I look at my group and I let them lead me in this area. From time to time we will have something that I will call a “test” because I believe that they need to know that term and that they will have “tests” – in a traditional form – at many points after me. Every teacher has their own twist on this. I am open to the topic and look forward to learning more about benefits/disadvantages of tests and no tests.

    • Thanks for your comment, R.T.! Listening to your students is great, and it sounds like you try to make the best decisions for them. I’m always hesitant to do what others are going to do past me, just because that’s what students might experience. If we teach students to be good thinkers, I think that they’ll perform well on traditional tests and quizzes too (even if we rarely give them). This is often an area of much discussion though. I’d be curious to hear what others have to say about this!


  5. Great post Aviva & excellent comments from all. I’ve had many of the same questions. When I plan or triangulate assessment data, products may or may not include a traditional test. However, parents understand tests. They sometimes help their child study for tests and may have to sign and return a test. The test that comes home helps keep parents up-to-date on how their child is progressing in a particular subject. Tests are often a physical piece of evidence that can seem very important, since many parents (including me) grew up in a teach & test environment. How do you sign and return a conversation or an observation? Using success criteria and rubrics allows us to maintain ongoing communication with parents without giving a test.

    When I read Kristi’s comment, I searched the pdf curriculum documents for “tests”. This is from the Math Curriculum: “Assessment is the process of gathering information from a variety of sources (including assignments, day-to-day observations and conversations/conferences, demonstrations, projects, performances, and tests) that accurately reflects how well a student is achieving the curriculum expectations in a subject….”

    Tests are just one way for a student to demonstrate their learning. If a test seemed like the best option for a particular situation, subject or student I’d use one but I don’t come across too many situations where this is the case.

    • Debbie, I absolutely agree with you! I’ve been trying recently to send home rubrics, assessment of success criteria, self-assessments, and my own assessment data, so that parents can still know how their child is doing without a test. I think that this parent piece is really important, as parents want to support their child at home, and they want to know if there are areas of need prior to a report card. I’d be curious to hear what others do to keep parents informed without giving a traditional test.

      I’d also be curious to know what other teachers in schools think about this post. Those that have commented so far are not ones that tend to give lots of tests (and if they do give tests, there seems to be a very specific reason that a test is the best evaluation option). Is this feeling the norm? Are regular tests more of the norm instead? If so, what can be done to change things? Should things be changed?

      So much to consider …

  6. Everything I have read in the above posts is a precise echo of my thoughts and feelings around the subject of assessment. Our school (in Cape Town, South Africa) is busy going through a curriuculum “revamp” for want of a better word. Our teachers have realised we need to work smarter, teach with depth and not breadth, to make our learning environment and content exciting and applicable to our children. Along with this quite daunting task (always great to throw out the old and bring in the new) is to relook at our assessment strategies. I have always been frustrated throughout my teaching career with the endless pen on paper assessments that are given. There are so many children out there who learn differently and are able to show their knowledge best when doing a “non-traditional” assessment. I don’t think many schools cater for them and as a result fail to see what their true capabilities are. We speak about the multiple intelligences but do we assesses, whether formative or summative, incorporating these so as to get a better picture of a child’s understanding?
    As mentioned in a previous post, we also have parents who have certain expectations. They know tests, how to get their children to study for one, the fact that a solid mark is attached to it and that these accumulate to bring about a report. To change the way we assess means we need to educate our parents as well and this is not an easy task. We have started this journey in January of 2013 and have made many inroads into changing their perceptions. Most have welcomed it once they fully understood our reasoning which is encouraging for us – parental buy-in is certainly a plus for any teacher.
    And then we have started our iPad 1:1 project this year which has opened up so many doors for us in terms of how we teach, being able to flip our classroom, to allow the children to work and express themselves using technology that they are growing up with etc. Is your school working with them and if so, what benefits are you seeing?
    Our school is still a long way off to getting it right and I wonder if we ever will with society changing so much and our children experiencing so many pressures at progressively younger ages? It is encouraging to read that there are teachers out there who are having similar thoughts and are keen to make changes and try something new!
    Teaching is indeed a calling and not a job! Happy teaching!

    • Jacky, thank you so much for your comment! It’s amazing to hear what you’re going through in South Africa, and how your school continues to go through many changes in a desire to improve. I think that we all need to be open to change if we know this is what’s best for kids. I believe there’s value to speaking up even if voices aren’t heard right away: they will eventually be heard.

      And may I echo your final sentiments too? I honestly can’t imagine a better “calling” than teaching! Loving what we do is so important, and it’s clear that you feel this way about teaching too. “Happy teaching!” 🙂


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