Are my tests “unfair”?

When I return tests, the students look at their grades, complain the test was unfair, and don’t pay much attention when we go over it. How can I deal with this? I teach ninth grade earth science.
—Ava, Lexington, Kentucky

Unit assessments can provide an opportunity for students to demonstrate what they’ve learned by asking them to synthesize concepts or apply them to new situations. But students may believe (perhaps based on previous experiences) that tests consist of trick questions, the questions are unrelated to the class activities, or the main purpose of a test is to provide points for a grade.

It might be helpful for you to look over and fine-tune a test before you give it to the students. Do the test items correlate to the learning goals? Do the items use different terminology than what was used in class? Are the test directions clear? Are students familiar with your expectations and rubrics for essay questions? But even with a well-designed assessment, students may feel it’s unrelated to what they do in class.

Sometimes students see a class as a series of unrelated events and don’t make connections from one activity to the next. At the beginning of each unit, share with them the focus on the unit and its learning goals (or whatever terminology you use: “big ideas,” essential questions, themes, or learning objectives). Many teachers post these goals in the classroom or have the students add them to their science notebooks. Refer to them often throughout the unit, showing how new concepts and activities relate to the goals and can contribute to the students’ understanding.

Help the students assess their own understanding prior to the test with frequent formative assessments. A checklist of the learning goals can help students chart their progress. Give students opportunities to synthesize and apply what they’re learning during the unit so when they see this type of question on the test they won’t panic.

After a test, when I asked my students about their “unfair” complaint, they often couldn’t put their fingers on specific questions. I tried several strategies to provide opportunities during the test for them to express any confusion, frustrations, or questions:

  • Tell-me-about-it. This idea came from one of my professors in grad school whose first language was not English. He told us that if we weren’t sure of the way he worded a problem, we should explain our interpretation and why we answered as we did. This would help him improve, too. I used this option especially with essay questions. Assuming the interpretation was a valid one, the student was given credit for the question. (And I revised the question for the next time).
  • Circle-three. On the objective portion of a test (such as multiple choice or fill in the blank questions), students could circle three items that confused them (the number was arbitrary on my part). They had to answer the questions and explain why they circled the items. The answer could not be blank, off-topic, or nonsense. The first time we tried this, I gave the students some ideas of how to start a response: “I did not understand …” “I am confused about …” “I was unsure of what you meant by…” If the answer was incorrect, it did not count in the final score. If it was correct, there was no “bonus.” As I was scoring the test, I kept track of which items had a lot of circles. For example, on one test there were quite a few circles around an item that used the word media (as in agar). I assumed students understood the word in this context, but their responses indicated otherwise, and some were unaware media is the plural of medium. So we reviewed the word, added it to the word wall, and the next time I did the unit I was sure to address it. This strategy was also helpful when we reviewed the test. Rather than going over every item, I focused on frequently circled items.

The first few times I used these, some students resisted—I was asking them to take some responsibility. But gradually, most of them learned I was serious about making assessments an integral part of the learning experience.




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One Comment

  1. LMoorman
    Posted March 31, 2013 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    I don’t go over the test when I give it back to them. I give them that additional day in class to use their notes or textbook to correct the questions that they didn’t get correct. I tell my students that learning the information is more important to me than a poor grade. I expect them to tell me where they got the correct information. I do not let them talk to each other at this point and I make sure that they don’t just copy from a neighbor. I also use this time to work individually with those students who I know still didn’t get the concepts. I regrade the tests, giving half credit for those questions now answered correctly and with the information about where they found the correct answer.

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