But If I Don’t Give a Test, How Do I Know They Know It?

“But if I don’t give them a test, how will I know they know it?” This question drives so much of our teaching and education policy and practice. And for the sake of this essay, I’m defining test as an objective test—multiple choice, matching, true-false, etc that mostly tests memorization of vocabulary and basic concepts. Granted, some objective tests do go beyond this and require application of knowledge to answer the questions instead of just recall, but I don’t think it is a stretch to say that these are the minority. And even in those cases, success on those more high-quality tests are also an test of decoding the question and of a student’s reading skills.

It is interesting (actually frustrating) to watch novice teachers—even experienced teachers and even me occasionally, fall into this trap. In one way it goes back to feeling the need to have a quantifiable grade to enter into spreadsheet, but that is only part of it. We have been indoctrinated that school is about tests and learning is about answering questions on tests.

We have made great progress in the profession in our understanding of how the brain works and actually constructs knowledge. We know that true knowledge involves incorporating content into one’s own understandings which is then juxtaposed against prior knowledge. This is how one truly makes meaning and is near the top of Blooms Taxonomy. This is what we strive for as educators.


Because of what we have learned, many teachers are correctly implementing more rigorous project-based learning, inquiry-based learning, more in-depth writing and so on as a part of the teaching tool box. We do this because we have learned that if they can do these skills and apply and work with the content knowledge, vocabulary, concepts, etc. then they will actually know it much better than if they memorize the script of vocabulary definitions. I like to say that if students do this they will “own” the knowledge instead of just “renting” it for the test. Yet many of us still follow up all of that great work students do by using a traditional test as the tool to measure the final outcome of the learning. Throughout our lesson plans we have climbed our way up the Bloom’s Taxonomy pyramid to the higher order thinking skills, but then at the end fall back down to the bottom when we test them. What this communicates to the students is that all the other stuff was nice and all, but really matters is can you memorize the vocabulary. It’s time to recognize that the traditional test measure, as convenient as it might be is no longer the right instrument to use. By using the other measures you can know that they know it and so much more than before. We have outgrown the test. Now we just need to recognize it.

2 thoughts on “But If I Don’t Give a Test, How Do I Know They Know It?

  1. Sullivan, Christine says:

    Right on, Tim! My students in Modern World just completed documentaries about World War I. This is instead of a test. Your writing was a timely reminder that I shouldn’t feel guilty about that : )


  2. Dorinda Grandbois says:

    Here in California, I am fighting the “You must test” bug constantly. Teachers often don’t know how to implement project-based curriculum — they certainly aren’t taught it in school. Then there are the students. I remember the deer in the headlights stares I received from the class when I said we would be working on projects of their choosing by the end of the school year. Some of the kids asked if they couldn’t just take tests. Projects terrified them. Teachers don’t realize they need to teach the steps of doing a project. They also don’t understand the grading process entailed and n each of the steps. You need to teach the “how to learn and show what you know” as much as, if not more than, the facts they learned.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s