Common teacher mistake #5

Common teacher mistake #5 — Making the first test too difficult.

It’s important that all your students succeed on the first formal assessment. Even if you’ve conducted enough ‘informal’ assessments that they’ve convinced you that they’ve learned, the students need to convince themselves that they’ve learned, and for them that means success on a test.

When your student do well on your first test, you get branded as ‘good’ and then the students are more likely to be cooperative.

Here are some things to do and not to do to ensure a good performance on your first test:
1) DO collect classwork and homework and check it carefully so that you KNOW the students have mastered the skills needed for the test.
2) DON’T make the test too long. It’s OK if they finish early. I’d rather risk the whole class finishing early and having ten minutes to look over their papers rather than risk having a bunch of students run out of time. A good rule of thumb is that you should be able to do in about ten minutes what your class should take forty minutes to do. If you’re worried that your test is too long, cut 1/3 of the questions. It’s OK if some topics get left off the test. If you have a statistically random sampling of the topics you taught, the grade will still be accurate.
3) DO proofread really carefully. Nothing is more distracting during a test than a teacher interrupting to say. “Hey everyone. There are two question 12s. Just call the first one 12a and the second one 12b. And on question 7, change choice B from ‘Benjamin Franklin’ to ‘Thomas Jefferson.’
4) DO make the test on the ‘easy’ side. I know I’m going to get accused of having low expectations here, but when a kid who has generally failed his tests gets a 90, he’s going to be happy. He’s not going to think, “Oh, it doesn’t count. That test was too easy.”
5) DON’T collect the test early from students who have finished. Have them continue checking their work or put their heads down. That way the tests will be in alphabetical order when you check them and they’ll be easier to record and easier to turn back.
6) DON’T put a ‘bonus challenge question’ on the test. It’s better for the student to get more points by re-checking the test than to spend a lot of time on a difficult bonus question worth 2 points. Since I stopped doing the bonus question, my students have been getting better scores.

This entry was posted in Common Teacher Mistakes, Teach For America, Teaching Advice. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Common teacher mistake #5

  1. Brian Rude says:

    Gary, I each college freshman math, so of course I tend to put your ideas in that context. And in this case it fits pretty well. What you say about the first test applies, I think, to my teaching situation. But what is your context? I will take a guess that it might be ninth grade algebra. I ask because context can make a difference, at least sometimes. It is true, I believe, that a lot of general ideas of teaching and learning apply to a wide range of subjects and grade levels. But not everything does. It helps to have the context in mind.

    I am aware that you are mainly directing your comments to TFA people, but I have no doubt your audience is bigger than that. And I would think that every time you post, a few new readers will somehow find their way to your blog. A few words of the context you have in mind would help to make your ideas more clear.

  2. Laura says:

    You promote mediocrity.
    Our best TFA overprepared her kids for their first test.
    A very hard one. The kids knew their test was the hardest and were really proud of having achieved something very hard.

  3. Dawn says:


    Did you go to Prospect High?

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