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Refine Your District's Test Bank Strategy to Drive Results

Kevin Duda
Kevin Duda - Courses and Curriculum Product Manager

Editor’s note: Our usage of the terms “formative assessment” and “interim assessment” is generally aligned with the definitions presented in A Framework for Considering Interim Assessments (Perie, et al., 2007). For the purpose of this article, interim assessments will mostly be discussed for their value at the district and school level, while formative assessments will be discussed in reference to their ability to inform instruction at the individual classroom level. 

Assessments are more tightly woven into the fabric of our education system than ever before. While much of the discussion remains focused on high-stakes, summative assessments, it is important to note that formative and interim assessments play an even larger role in day-to-day district operations. The burden of designing enough tests to meet the growing demand can be hard for educators to reconcile with other critical responsibilities, which is one of the reasons why test banks have become so popular.

Unfortunately, as is the case with many reactionary, “early bird gets the worm” products in the education sector, the design and implementation of these test banks has often left much to be desired. In speaking with district leaders throughout the country, we have identified the trends and forward-thinking practices that can transform your district’s test bank from “just another resource” into a valuable strategic tool for teachers and administrators alike.


Verify the Quality of Test Bank Content

One of the biggest knocks on test banks (and testing firms in general) is that their content is frequently miscategorized (Popham, 2006) for marketing purposes. Over the course of the last decade, districts have invested millions of dollars on test banks that claim to be “formative in nature” and “promote higher-order thinking.” Too often, administrators find out after the fact that these were nothing more than labels slapped on to existing content that was not actually created with either objective in mind. 

So, if you can’t trust vendors to provide accurate information about their products, how can you determine whether or not a given test bank will help your teachers to generate truly formative assessments? Lorrie Shepard, one of the most heavily cited authorities on testing, conducted a thorough analysis in 2005 of formative assessment culture in schools. That research, when applied to test bank evaluation, accentuates the need for specific, guided feedback and qualitative analysis to help students overcome an “obsession with grades” in favor of “interest and effort toward learning.” The latter goal involves systematic overhauls that are far outside the scope of test banks, but the tool should at least reflect the objectives.

Test bank questions are most effective when they are both mapped to standards and grounded in instructional research to identify specific gaps in learning. They must provide clear feedback to teachers as to what each incorrect answer might signify. Multiple choice questions should not be the only option to choose from – the best test banks on the market also include open-ended questions with grading rubrics, which give your staff the ability to design a more well-rounded formative assessment. Ask your test bank vendor how their questions were developed, what the review process is, and how often the banks are updated to ensure that your questions are based on research and frequently adapted to meet the needs of an evolving landscape.


Identify the Purpose of Each Test

There are a vast number of purposes for and benefits to testing from a student and teacher perspective (Roediger, et al., 2011), but even more benefits become apparent as you move upward in scope to the school, district, and state levels. Districts and test bank providers can best serve students when they support the assessment process with professional development to clarify how the test bank should be utilized to meet specific evaluation goals. 

Teachers using the test bank for formative assessment purposes will be looking for questions that cover material from a small cross section of their course. The questions should encompass material and concepts that have already been covered and should be chosen so as to provide the teacher with a snapshot of group and individual understanding so their lesson plans and individual support can be adjusted accordingly. 

Administrators, on the other hand, will be looking for a broader scope of information from their interim assessments, such as “how are students in this grade level progressing in relation to standards at my school or district?” or “how do the students in this high school who are learning by these methods compare developmentally to their peers?” The test results should provide information that can be disaggregated to identify trends among various subgroups, instructors, and entities. These are two widely varying goals that require both a differentiated approach to assessment building and purpose-based supporting documentation for the questions themselves.


Synthesize with Existing Technology

In order to ensure that your test bank is being used most effectively, it is important to build staff knowledge through district-wide initiatives such as training, review, and follow-up. Support your test bank with other technologies that you may already have in place and include cross-system training in any professional development plan. It is not always enough to simply purchase a test bank and provide your staff with logins; users at all levels will need to know how to obtain and interpret results quickly and accurately.

The first point of integration to look for is with your district’s electronic gradebook and/or learning management system. Test banks integrate with many different platforms, so it is important to ensure that those who are creating tests can do so in an intuitive interface without the need for detailed technical knowledge. When purchasing a test bank, ask your other technology provider for information regarding how tests are designed within their system and what information is readily visible to those in varying roles. 

It is equally important to be able to review detailed assessment results once the test is complete. Your data analytics system should have the ability to provide real-time updates and role-specific dashboards for various assessment purposes. The need for aggregation and disaggregation of data based on district-specific elements is paramount, along with easy-to-understand trend analysis and alert thresholds to identify those students who require individual attention. Assessments make up one of the most important pieces of a data-driven culture, so they should to be emphasized accordingly when reviewing potential analytics solutions. 

Test banks are a useful resource for your district, but they can lead to a harmful disconnect if not implemented correctly. With the right combination of education technology and best practices from your peers throughout the country, you can use a strong test bank to drive the results your district needs. 



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