Well-Designed Assessments: Tips for Creating a Path to Success

By Avery Lacey, ’20

While design may seem a fairly minor part of assessments, Becky Holland, head of the Barney Charter School Initiative (BCSI) instructional coaching team, explains that the format and style of tests can greatly help or hinder students’ success. Tests should measure what the students actually know, she says—they shouldn’t simply be “gotcha” moments. At the BCSI 2019 Summer Teacher Training, Holland presented a few ideas for creating assessments that allow students to give their best.

  • Formatting matters, Holland says. While we all strive for environmental sustainability, using fonts that are smaller than 12 points, having young children work off a projector, or providing insufficient space for answers simply frustrates and confuses students. Word banks or pictures should be on the same pages as their associated questions, so students “don’t have to flip back and forth throughout the test,” Holland advises. These little things help students focus on the content of the questions rather than the distracting format in which they are written.
  • For younger students who routinely skip questions, Holland suggests generous spacing: large sections of compressed text make it difficult for students to tell whether they have answered each individual question. Inserting check boxes next to each question also allows students to keep track of which questions they have answered as they complete the test.
  • Tests should follow the sequential logic of the content or the order in which the students learned the material. For instance, a biology teacher testing on DNA might place all his questions on replication together, followed by those on transcription, then those on translation. Culminating questions should fall at the end of the assessment. “Kids benefit from starting at the beginning, working their way through, and then using the test to take the test,” Holland says.
  • Teachers should pay special attention to each grade level’s literacy capacity, and not ask for answers that exceed it. Science or history teachers, for instance, should be aware of the students’ mastery of sentences, paragraphs, or spelling, and format their questions accordingly. Here, quality of work is more important than quantity; more words do not necessarily imply better understanding.
  • Holland emphasizes clearly distinguishing tests from quizzes. “One test should take most children about one class period,” she says, “and a quiz should take less than half a class period.” Students and parents should know the difference and have appropriate study expectations for quizzes and tests.
  • Avoid scheduling multiple tests for one grade level on the same day, Holland advises, especially for younger children. She suggests teachers use a big white board or a shared Outlook calendar to work around each other’s schedules. Spreading out assessments allows students to invest more time in studying and to be fully present while taking tests.

Holland’s simple suggestions all serve to create clearer, and therefore more attainable, expectations for students.