Friday, October 14, 2011

Test Deconstruction

I used to pre-test my students. There were two main purposes. I wanted to use it as a diagnostic to see what they already knew and I wanted to focus them on what was coming.

As a diagnostic, the test was pretty useless. All my students come in with essentially zero content knowledge of what we're going to learn. I mean, a few might be able to shout out a half-remembered vocabulary word, but I haven't had any students that can go beyond that. I get the information I really need from whatever I use to launch a topic. The ball and hoop demo for when we learn about atoms or just having them predict what will sink or float when we start on density/buoyancy.

In terms of focus, well, that didn't work so great either. They'd fail their way through the pre-test and since they had zero pre-exposure, none of what they saw on the test would stick. They didn't have anything to anchor it with.

Now I go with test deconstruction. In the cycle, this happens after they've run their own experiment and teased out the big ideas.

I give them a copy of a test I'm planning to give them. Same format. The questions aren't identical but they're testing the same standards. In their notebooks, they draw four columns. The first column is just the letter of the standard, which is listed next to the test question.

The second column is, "What do I need to do?" They should write what is actually required in the question. Do they need to label a diagram? Explain something? Draw a picture? Fill in the blank? They have a copy of Costa's questions in their notebooks to help them along. I picked up this page either at an AVID conference or somewhere online. doesn't like the font I used but you get the idea.

The third column is, "What do I need to know?" and the fourth is Key Vocabulary.

Obviously identifying the content knowledge and vocabulary required is an important reason for doing this, but there are two other things I'm trying to accomplish.

Number one, I want them to understand how fundamentally different this question is:



A. Draw and label an atom.


B. Select from the word bank and label the diagram.


C: List the subatomic particles of an atom.

In the first example they'll need to know the parts of an atom, where they are located, and what those little symbols might mean. They're not asked to do the actual drawing from memory as in example A (this comes later on when we start with the periodic table). In B, they're only asked to recognize, not memorize, the names and know the locations. In example C, they're only asked to remember the names but not the locations or know what those symbols are. However, they are required to know what "subatomic" means. These are different questions that will require different levels of knowledge and different skills. More importantly, they need to prepare for these differently. I can't just tell a failing kid to "study." They don't know how to study. It's something that needs to be taught.

Number two, student friendly learning goals! One of my rules for teaching is don't do the thinking for the students. If your learning goals are in teacher language ("Identify and label the subatomic particles of an atom") and you translate that for them, you're doing the thinking for them. I want my kids to know what "identify", "label" and "subatomic" mean. Why in the world would I translate that for them? The columns translate easily into a learning goal for each standard and now when I say, "Today we're going to work on identifying and labeling the subatomic particles of an atom", they've already got something written up to decode what that all means.1

They write them up in their science notebook next to that topic's table of contents. Whenever we add something to the TOC we can refer to the learning goals at the same time.

1: Now is not the time, but at some point you'll need to remind me to preach for judicious use of the learning goal. 


  1. You write: " doesn't like the font I used but you get the idea"...That's not because it's freaking comic sans, is it? Say it is and I'll never read another word of yours again.

  2. "I can't just tell a failing kid to 'study.' They don't know how to study. It's something that needs to be taught."

    That made me want to shout, "Amen!" We make so many assumptions about skills kids have and do them such a disservice by assuming that when they don't do those things they are lazy or defiant or whatever other label we throw out.

    Our fourth grade team spends the end of each day for the first few weeks of school with the students doing their homework. They teach the kids what it means to do homework (a comfortable, quiet spot, gather your materials, etc.) and then have them practice it at school. Home may not be the perfect environment for homework for all kids, but at least they now have some schema and expectations. And yet, when they started doing this I was shocked. It was a 'smack upside the head' moment of realization about the assumptions we make.

    You just gave me that same sort of moment. I appreciate folks doing that for me.

  3. @christopherdanielson Comic sans makes people smarter: Of course the tradeoff is smarter people with bad taste.

    @Jenny Your comment is really inspiring. I love stuff like that.