My eloquent uncle often sipped his coffee near enough to the holiday buffet table and – with a squint-eyed, far off gaze – espoused pithy aphorisms to his beleaguered relatives as they sliced fruitcake and balanced freshly churned ice cream over warm pecan pie. His most beloved axiom still resonates with our family years after his 18 nieces and nephews have left those holiday traditions and grown-up to have families of our own.
My uncle would muse, “You know what you know. And you don’t know what you don’t know.”
Profound, perfunctory, my uncle was a man of few words.
The process of knowing what you know is what I’m focusing on today as assessments and diagnostic tests flood students and parents. Why is assessment so common? What benefit is there in sending our students through this battery of tests each year?
First off, let’s parse the difference between an assessment and a diagnostic test since those terms are mentioned in the test prep world with some frequency. The purpose of the tests is quite similar, but the scope of their purpose changes things.
A diagnostic test is used to calculate the current state of a student’s knowledge, information or ability on a set range of topics in a specific area. The purpose of a diagnostic test in education is to assess the current state of a student’s knowledge base. (source 1) Diagnostic tests measure students’ understanding of a subject area or skills base. Teachers typically administer diagnostics for reading and math skills, using the results to provide remedial instruction or place students within appropriately leveled classes. Many content teachers, though, give formative assessments to gauge what knowledge students bring to class. Some schools also diagnose concepts as a whole, aiming to reveal commonly held misconceptions in specific subjects. (source 2)
An assessment is used before beginning a program, lesson or unit. There is generally an end goal in mind and an assessment, but students are not necessarily expected to know most, or even any, of the material evaluated by assessments. They are generally used to establish a baseline against which educators measure learning progress over the duration of a program or determine general academic readiness for a program. The purpose of an assessment test is to test the range of what a student knows at a certain point in time in comparison to the information that a student is expected to know by the time the course completes. (source 3)
For our purpose in the scope of test prep, we generally have a range of information on hand that we hope the students will know at the end of their tutoring program, so we more often refer to the initial test a student takes as an assessment since they will see most information in the assessment test that they should also expect to see on the ISEE.
To “know what you know” a student needs to have an assessment test. The purpose is to lay out that piece of what they do know. Customized instruction in any form needs a baseline of the range of information on the test the students will take and weed out the ‘this is what you know’ to the ‘this is what you don’t know.’
For most of our students, we assess their knowledge base before they begin a test prep course with us since the range of skills and information they need to perform well on a standardized test – be it SAT, ISEE, ACT or ERB – will only overlap at certain points with their school work. There are specific concepts and skills that students need for a standardized test that they will not be learning in school.
Standardized tests ask students to:
- Work at a very rigorous pace
- Have a broad base of knowledge beyond their academic age
- Make guesses and estimations and implement certain ‘test taking strategies’
- Demonstrate a deep working knowledge of complicated information
That assessment before the instruction begins will give us deep insight and information about how to set our goals as a team of instructors, parents and our office staff. It yields tremendous insight into how limited or advanced a students’ understanding of the range of test content actually is. It helps us know how much we need to cover and give us a sense of the timeline as we plan the 3-6 months of prep.
What about the students? How does the assessment benefit them? The assessment test gives students a sense of what the actual test will feel like and helps them prepare mentally for what they will cover during the prep. It also helps the students understand the ‘why’ piece of the prep. If a student hasn’t had any experience with the test itself, their understanding of why a tutor would ask them to work through information in a specific way is limited because the students lack the big picture.
How do we help students make the best use of an assessment? The quality of test prep instruction depends a great deal on a student’s willingness to learn from their mistakes and become better at identifying their assumptions and improving. The assessment is the first piece of learning how to make progress on your own terms.
When a student finishes a test, it is hard to look at all the incorrect problems on the online ISEE tests we have or see the low raw score on the SAT and not feel discouraged. This is not the point of the tests, so before a student begins the test, they need to know that standardized tests are not like their own school work. Most students anticipate getting about 90% in order to get an A, 80% to receive a B grade and so on. With the ISEE, especially in the beginning, most students start out around 50% correct in the Math and QR sections and about 60-75% correct in the Verbal Reasoning and Reading Comp sections. Most students who take the SAT for the first time generally score in the 1000 range. Starting in the average range is not a bad thing, but knowing the raw score and not calculating it as a percentage is important. Students can get very discouraged by the results if they don’t re-frame their expectations ahead of time. Students will get a better handle on understanding their results if they have the right expectations going in to take the assessment test.
They took the test. Now what? This is where the learning begins! Students shouldn’t wait for the tutor to come in order for them to have a teachable moment. This is their chance to become detectives and learn about themselves. Go back over this test in detail and begin to take apart the information. Students should start by sorting the problems into 3 categories.
- “I got the answer right because I know the content and I feel confident in it.”
- Huh? “I’ve never seen this before; I have no idea what it is and if I got it right, it’s because I did a lucky guess.”
- Oh, duh!! “This is work I know how to do and I made a mistake in there that messed me up.”
Category 1 is great. It helps us all know how much progress they’ve made in school or other tutoring. This is generally basic math and reading concepts that a student learns in their elementary years.
Category 2 is my uncle’s “You don’t know what you don’t know” category. This category usually requires direct instruction by the tutor during the tutoring sessions. If a student sorts these out ahead of time, a tutor can easily plan their test prep around this information and select the chapters or content to cover and know how long it will take.
Category 3 is where students can make the most growth on their own and they should spend time on it. This helps them learn from their mistakes in the most positive, growth-oriented way. They should look for patterns in problems — not showing work, not re-reading the problem to make sure they were answering the right question, rushing — and learn possibly the most important thing about themselves: “What can I change in the future to prevent myself from making this mistake again?”
There’s a bit of muscle memory to this part of prep that students need to learn. We talked about pace earlier and this can be challenging. Students should learn how to slowly go over the problems, map them out, check their work and get it right again and again before they start to increase their pace. Students should be in the habit of re-viewing their errors in an untimed setting and doing them step by step slowly, in essence, learning that process before they try to speed it up. We don’t send students straight into advanced tap for a reason. They need to do the steps slowly at first, over and over again, before they can speed it up and still maintain accuracy. The assessment gives them a chance to see how they perform in a sped-up environment, but, before they try to keep that pace up, they need to re-visit their work and learn from it in order to make progress.
We have 6 assessment tests available online for our Middle and Upper Level ISEE students. We have 12 SAT and ACT tests available for our high school students. The purpose of these tests is to teach our students how to take a test and actually understand and learn from their results. The point of the tests is not to rush through and sit as many of them as possible. We want our students to learn how to learn. Their independent work on these tests is the largest piece of a student’s success in tutoring. Once they know how to correct their mistakes on the practice tests and identify for their tutor what they need to learn together, the more targeted and accurate the tutoring sessions will become.
The goal of working through the initial pre-test before the instructor knocks on your door the first time is to know what you know and know what you don’t know. This will help everybody on the team to make the right kind of plan that is tailored to each student and won’t waste your resources and time. The goal of continuing the assessments over the course of tutoring for the students is to build their resilience, stamina and become a stronger, more independent worker as they play detective on their own work. The ongoing practice of knowing themselves and learning from themselves will form an invaluable piece of their educational future. Rather than becoming discouraged by failure, our goal is that students learn how to learn from their mistakes and use it as a resource for growth.