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NYC Helpline: How To: Implement Standards, Curriculum, and Assessment

Developing a Test  Lisa Peterson

As strange as it may seem in these days of excessive standardized testing, I actually enjoy creating, administering, and correcting my own classroom-based tests. If I can develop interesting and provocative questions, I open a new window into my students’ thinking. (I never use multiple choice questions because they tell me very little about what goes on inside my students’ heads.) To me, the key to a good test is to include several different types of questions that probe students’ knowledge in a variety of creative ways. Here are some of my favorite types of test questions:

Matching/Fill-in-the-Blank: I usually begin a test with a set of vocabulary-related matching or fill-in-the-blank type questions. These questions aren’t very creative, but they help students warm up and gain confidence because they don’t require much thinking. (They are also very quick for me to grade, a blessing since the rest of my tests tend to be very time-intensive.) These questions let me know if students have a basic recall of the important terms of the unit.

Quotes: I like to include quotes and ask students to explain who is speaking and in what situation. The most obvious place to use quotes is to include actual quotes in a literature or history test, but you can get very creative with hypothetical quotes as well. In history, you can include fictitious quotes that represent the perspectives of different groups in society. For example, “The British have no right to tax my tea. We don’t have any representatives in Parliament,” might represent the perspective of a Patriot in the American Revolution. In science and math, you can use quotes as identification tools. “I am a metallic element that is also a liquid,” could be included in a test on the elements, while “I am a two-digit prime number. The sum of my digits is two,” could be included in a test on prime and composite numbers.

Modified True-False: This type of question provides a statement that students must identify as true or false. (In math, you can provide a problem that the student must identify as correct or incorrect.) However, unlike a regular true-false question, if the statement is false, the student must explain why it is false and rewrite it to make it true. This is a big improvement on the standard true-false question because the student must explain the underlying concept.

Relationships: For this type of question, I juxtapose two terms, and the students must fully explain the relationship between them. The words might be opposites, like urban / rural; the words might have a cause and effect relationship like potato famine / immigration; or the words might have share both similarities and differences, such as mass / weight. I like this type of question because it goes beyond isolated definitions to explore the connections between concepts. Although students usually need some explanation of how to do these questions, they never fail to surprise me by seeing interesting relationships that I hadn’t noticed.

Maps and Diagrams: Depending on the topic, students can draw or label maps or diagrams and then give a written explanation. This type of question is particularly good for visual learners.

Graphic Organizers: If your students consistently use graphic organizers such as Venn diagrams in class, you can also put test questions in this format. You can have students fill in their own information, or you can provide the facts you want students to categorize. For example, in a test on Native Americans, I provided facts about different regional groups, and students had to enter the facts in the correct place on a graphic organizer.

Short Answer: Sometimes you want students to answer basic questions in a few sentences. It’s not a terribly creative format, but it can be effective.

Essay: Because students will be asked to write essays throughout their school careers, I try to include an essay question on every test. To ease the pressure a little, I often give students the chance to choose one of two possible questions. Since an essay is usually worth more points than any other question, I don’t want students to be disproportionately penalized for a knowledge gap in one area.

I try to help students organize their essays by stating the question in a way that clearly shows how to structure the response. In fact, for younger students and at the beginning of the year with older ones, I will go so far as to state what students should include in each paragraph. As students become more proficient in structuring their own essays, I include less guidance in the question. For example, on a test on immigration, I used the following essay question that provides quite a bit of structure.

At the base of the Statue of Liberty is a poem:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send those, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

In your essay, analyze whether or not the promise in this poem came true for immigrants to America in the 1800’s. Be sure to include the following:

  • Introduction
  • What the poem means
  • What immigrants’ home lives were like in the 1800’s
  • What immigrants’ work lives were like in the 1800’s
  • Your analysis of whether or not the promise came true for them
  • Conclusion

The best essay questions require students to use higher-level thinking skills by comparing and contrasting, analyzing, or evaluating. In the sample question, for instance, students had to use the details of immigrants’ experiences to argue whether or not America lived up to its promise to them.




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