What Does the Research Say About Testing?

Teachers agree that schools are too testing. However, well-designed classroom quizzes and tests can increase student retention and recall.

Teachers are often extremely negative about the images of students in silence filling out forms, writing timed essays, or computing mathematical equations.

Every third-through eighth grader in U.S. public school has taken tests that are aligned to state standards since 2002’s passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The updated Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was passed in 2015. A study of the nation’s most urban school districts found that students took on average 112 standardized tests from pre-K through grade 12.

The annual testing process can distract from learning and put pressure on districts with the lowest socioeconomic status to prepare for tests. “Tests don’t explicitly teach anything. Jose Vilson, an elementary math teacher in New York City, writes that tests don’t explicitly teach anything. Students should be given tests that are not standardized. This is Meena Negandhi (math coordinator at the French American Academy, Jersey City, New Jersey).

National debates about how students learn and retain information have been accelerated by the backlash against high-stakes testing. Over the past decade and a half, educators have been moving away from traditional testing–particularly multiple choice tests–and turning to hands-on projects and competency-based assessments that focus on goals such as critical thinking and mastery rather than rote memorization.

Teachers shouldn’t abandon traditional classroom tests too quickly. Studies have shown that tests can be useful tools for helping students learn if they are designed with format, timing and content in mind and a clear purpose to enhance student learning.

Not all TESTS are bad

The quickest and easiest type of test is the one that takes the least amount of time: practice quizzes on recent content. These tests can prove to be very beneficial, especially if they are frequently given and offer immediate feedback to students. You can ask students to list two to four facts from the previous day, or give them a short quiz about a class lesson.

Research shows that retrieval practice is more effective than just studying the material. Although reviewing concepts can help students get more familiar with a topic they are not sure how to retain it without using more active learning strategies such as frequent practice quizzes.

To reduce anxiety and the fear of being a stereotype threat (the fear of falling in line with a negative stereotype about the group one is part of), retrieval-type practice tests must be low-stakes and be administered at least three times before any final summative attempt to be most effective.

Timing is also important. High-stakes assessments are easier for students who take them soon after they have finished their studies. But a week or more after studying, students retain much less information and will do much worse on major assessments–especially if they’ve had no practice tests in between.

In a 2006 study, students who took short retrieval tests prior to a high-stakes exam remembered 60% of the material, whereas those who studied only 40%. In a 2009 study eighth graders who took a practice exam halfway through the year retained 10 percent more information on a U.S. History final at the end than their peers who did not take a practice test.

Teachers can also gauge the level of student understanding by using short, low-stakes assessments. When tests are formative , which is designed to provide immediate feedback so students and teachers can identify areas of strengths and weaknesses and help them grow, this is effective. Summative exams, which measure how much a student has learned, but offer no opportunity for improvement, are less effective.


However, teachers should be careful when designing tests. Not all tests are effective in helping students retain information. Multiple choice tests can be relatively simple to make, but they can also contain confusing answer choices (that may be ambiguous or vague) or offer the infamous all, some, or none-ofthe-above options, which encourages guessing.

Although educators tend to rely on open-ended questions for teaching, short-answer questions offer an opportunity to see student thinking. Research shows that there are no differences between multiple-choice and constructed-response questions when it comes to demonstrating what students have learned.

End-of-the line, multiple-choice tests with clear questions and plausible responses (and no all or none of the-above options) can be a valuable way to evaluate students’ comprehension of material. This is especially true if the teacher quickly reviews the answers.

Multiple choice tests are not the same for all students. According to a 2018 study conducted by Sean Reardon at Stanford University, girls do not perform as well on multiple choice tests. However, they are more successful with questions that have open-ended responses. This is according to Sean Reardon’s 2018 study . It found that the test format alone accounts 25% of the gender gap in math and reading performance. Researchers believe risk aversion is one reason for the gender gap in high stakes testsgirls are more likely to guess.

In part, it can increase performance by giving students more time to answer more difficult or more detailed questions. Research has shown that students can feel stress by simply having a time limit placed on tests. Teachers should encourage students not to focus only on speed but to really think about the problems they are solving.


The outside environment can have an impact on test performance. Teachers’ feedback and comments can make a significant difference in how students perform on tests.

Teachers telling students from disadvantaged schools that the upcoming assessment might be difficult can help them persevere, according 2015 research by Stanford professor David Paunesku. However, simply stating that some students excel at a task without a growth mindset message or explaining that they are smart can harm children’s performance, even if the task is simple like drawing shapes.

Data walls that display student scores and assessments can also be detrimental to student motivation. Data walls may be helpful for educators. However, a 2014 study revealed that students were more likely to compare their work than improve it.

Instructor comments are the best way to improve testing. questions such as “Can I tell you more about what you mean?” and “Can you provide evidence for that?” can be used to encourage students to engage with their work. It’s not surprising that students thrive when they are given multiple opportunities to learn and improve, and when they are encouraged to do so.