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     January 2005

Education Up Close

Writing Effective Tests:
A Guide for Teachers

Creating effective tests is an essential task for all classroom teachers. While it is a task that every teacher undertakes year after year, how can you be sure you are making the best tests possible? This month, we examine the importance of good test question construction and provide a variety of solid suggestions you can follow when constructing your next classroom test.

The Importance of Good Tests
Testing is a usually a key component in a teacherís overall assessment strategy. The quality of the tests given is closely linked with their ability to provide the kind of information you need regarding student performance.

A well-written test allows you to accurately and consistently measure studentsí mastery of specific content taught in class. Results of well-written tests also allow teachers to measure, to some degree, how effective their instruction has been.

Conversely, poorly designed test questions can lead to inaccurate measurements of learning and provide false information regarding student performance, as well as effectiveness of instruction. They can also result in unintended measurements of skills not taught.

Types of Test Questions
The test questions most teachers use in classrooms fall into two broad categories: selected response and created response.

Selected response questions require students to select from a predetermined list of potential answers. These questions include multiple choice, true/false, matching, and fill-in-the-blank questions. Selected-response questions are often viewed as less challenging in terms of the thinking skills required to answer them. However, when well written, they can measure higher levels of thinking, not simply the recalling of facts. The writing of these test items can be challenging, and they frequently take more time to construct. When well written, though, they are easier to score and can provide a more objective method of assessment than do created response items.

Created response questions include extended answer and essays These questions measure the studentís ability to communicate effectively, not just their understanding of content. Most teachers have to balance several considerations when choosing what to include in a test, including the fair assessment of knowledge or skills, number of students taking the test, and amount of time available to score the test. This type of question is often easier to write, but can require more time to score. Scoring is often less reliable because it is more subjective.

Writing Better Tests
There are a number of steps you can take to improve the quality of the tests you write.

Match Instructional Objectives and Teacher Notes to the Test
When creating your test items, refer back to your instructional objectives for the content and skills you want to assess. Use any lesson plans or teacher notes regarding what was covered and assigned to ensure your test items accurately reflect content that was covered in class. Choose the most important objectives to assess and use these as the outline for your test

Match Question Type to Level of Assessment Desired
Choose the type of questions to include carefully. Multiple choice and matching questions offer the most flexibility in terms of content that can be covered and thinking skills that can be assessed. True/false are usually limited to fact recall. Try to balance the number of question types and limit their number to no more than three types on one test for middle school and high school students.

Construct Questions Carefully
Besides matching the content and skills assessed on the test to your instructional objectives, the most important test-making process is selecting the wording of each question and answer. The stem or question portion of the test item should be carefully worded using straightforward language. Careful attention should also be given to writing the correct and incorrect answers (also known as distractors).

When constructing selected response questions for multiple choice, true/false, matching, and fill-in-the-blank questions, use the following guidelines.

Guideline Reason
Avoid confusing students with too many negatives in a question. (e.g., What might not have happened had the Allies not won the war?) Unless they appear on a grammar or logic test, these items rarely test content knowledge. They also may skew the test unfairly toward native English speakers and highly proficient readers.
Avoid using incomplete sentences. This type of question may provide grammatical clues to the correct answer.
Avoid using ďall of the aboveĒ as a choice. Students can easily eliminate this answer by identifying just one incorrect answer.

Write all answer choices to be approximately the same length.

Correct answers are often the longest.

Adjust the level of the question to the level of thinking required to answer it. For example:
A simple memorization task:
In what year was the Declaration of Independence signed?
a) 1770 b) 1876 c) 1776 d) 1786

A task that requires higher order thinking skills:
What later historical events best affirm the ideas set forth in the Declaration of Independence?
a) Emancipation Declaration, 19th Amendment
b) Eminent Domain, Manifest Destiny
c) Civil War, World War I

You can measure higher order thinking skills by the way you word a question.
Proofread all items before copying the test. Typographical errors are more often made in incorrect answers and may be apparent to test wise students.

Evaluating the Test
Once scored, spend some time reviewing the test and observing patterns that may be present.

Were there any questions that every student got wrong? If so, can you deduce whether it was due to poor test item construction or to instruction? If it was poorly written, you may want to consider canceling it out and recalibrating the test. If students simply didnít understand the concept, you now know what needs to be retaught.

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