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4 Common Types of Tests Teachers Give (and Why)

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Dr. Kimberly O’Malley is a public school teacher, a mother of two boys, and a Pearson researcher at the Pearson Research & Innovation Network. She specializes in ways to measure student growth and in finding new ways to interpret test scores so that they’re more meaningful.

When parents hear the word “testing,” many think “clear your desk and take out your No. 2 pencil.” They imagine testing to be what happens at the end of the year when students are faced with blue books and bubble sheets.

As a public school teacher, I use different types of testing. When I taught my second graders how to tell time on an analog clock, I handed out models of clocks and called out different times. The students moved the hands to express each one, and would hold up their clocks so I could check who was having trouble. I got feedback on student learning during the lesson and it helped me tailor my instruction in real time.

What testing offers me, as a teacher, is information about where students are in their learning and insights that guide me as I move forward with my lesson plans.

As a parent, I get testing information on my two boys, Jace (13) and Luke (10), throughout the school year. I use the feedback from different forms of testing — grades on assignments, notes from their teacher, and standardized test results — to track the progress they are making.

What testing offers me, as a parent, is an understanding of how my boys are doing academically. Test results are a way for me to have eyes on my kids’ classrooms even though I am not there. This information guides what we focus on when we do homework at the kitchen table.

Understanding the different types of testing, the kinds of results they provide, and how they complement one another can help parents help their children learn.


Different Types of Testing 

There are four types of testing in schools today — diagnostic, formative, benchmark, and summative.

4 types of testing

Diagnostic Testing

This testing is used to “diagnose” what a student knows and does not know. Diagnostic testing typically happens at the start of a new phase of education, and covers topics students will be taught in upcoming lessons.

Teachers use diagnostic testing information to guide what and how they teach. They’ll spend more time teaching skills students struggled with most on the diagnostic test.

Diagnostic testing can be a helpful tool for parents. The feedback my kids receive on these tests lets me know what kind of content they will be focusing on in class and lets me anticipate which skills or areas they may have trouble with.


Formative Testing

This type of testing is used to gauge student learning during the lesson. It is informal and low-stakes, used throughout a lecture and designed to give students the opportunity to demonstrate they understand the material (like in my clock activity example above).

Schools normally do not send home reports on formative testing, but it is an important part of teaching and learning. If you help your children with their homework, you are likely using a version of formative testing as you work together.


Benchmark Testing

This testing is used to check whether students have mastered a unit of content. Benchmark testing is given during or after a classroom focuses on a section of material.

Unlike diagnostic testing, students are expected to have mastered material on benchmark tests. Parents will often receive feedback from these tests - it’s important to me as a parent, as it gives me insight into which concepts my boys did not master. If I want to further review a concept with my boys, I can find lessons, videos, or games online, or ask their teachers for resources.


Summative Testing

This testing is used as a checkpoint at the end of the year or course to assess how much content students learned overall. This type of testing is similar to benchmark testing, but covers everything students have been learning throughout the year.

These tests are given to all students in a classroom, school, or state, so everyone has an equal opportunity to demonstrate what they know. Students demonstrate their ability to perform at the level prescribed as the proficiency standard for the test.

Since summative tests cover the full range of concepts for a given grade level, they are not able to assess any one concept deeply. As a parent, I consider summative testing a confirmation about what I should already know about my sons’ performance. I don’t expect to be surprised by the results, given the feedback I have received from diagnostic, formative, and benchmark testing.


Combining Test Results

 We need a balance of the four different types of testing in order to get a holistic view of our children’s academic performance.

Though each type offers important feedback, the real value is in putting all that data together. First, using a diagnostic test, you can gauge what a student already knows and what she will learn in an upcoming unit. Next, formative tests help teachers and parents monitor the progress a student is making on a daily basis. A benchmark test can be an early indicator of whether students have met a lesson’s goals, allowing parents and teachers to reteach concepts the student is struggling with. Ideally, when heading into summative testing, teachers and parents should already know the extent to which a student has learned the material. The summative testing provides that final confirmation.

Hopefully, the next time parents hear the word “testing,” they won’t just think of summative testing. Instead, they’ll think of all four types and the value of each in realizing a richer, more thorough understanding of their child’s progress.


Read the full story on Kimberly's blog.

Pearson’s Research and Innovation Network is made up of top education experts who explore solutions and innovations for challenges faced by teachers, parents and students. They’re working to ensure that learning is engaging, meaningful,personalized and focused on student success.