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Sunday, December 04, 2005

"Units" and "unit tests"?

The other day we were talking about “summative assessments.”. In math a summative assessment usually translates to a unit test. But what about those of us who don’t give unit tests?

About seven years ago, the Weston Math Department reformed its curriculum in several ways, the most significant of which was that we divided each year-long course into four major units. The idea was that teachers would encourage depth rather than breadth, that students would focus on deeper learning rather than learn hundreds of things at a shallow level. On the whole this has worked well, although the particular choice of units may need to be tweaked after so many years.

And what does this have to do with unit tests? When units are longer — only four per year — there’s a long wait for a so-called unit test. But that’s not my primary objection. After all, more quizzes (“formative assessments” in the current jargon) can always be given. Here’s why I don’t give unit tests:
  1. Unit tests encourage compartmentalization. If a test is on the “exponents and logs” unit, it sends a message that exponents and logs won’t be needed later on. Tests should always be cumulative.

  2. Unit tests can’t be scheduled far in advance, since there’s no way to predict exactly when a unit will end. Students deserve to know well in advance when their tests will be held. I can tell them tomorrow that their next test will be on January 6, which I couldn’t do if the test has to come at the end of a unit.

  3. Unit tests discourage continuity. A test should be a snapshot of where we are at the moment, connecting previous and subsequent learning. (Perhaps this point should be combined with #1.)

  4. Unit tests encourage teachers to “teach to the test.” But if I don’t know what will be on the next test, I won’t have it in my mind as I teach.
Perhaps the whole idea of units is a bad idea. I love the idea of concentrating on fewer topics and doing them in greater depth, but we can do that without explicit units. Mathematical topics should be part of a web of interconnected ideas that flow smoothly (or sometimes roughly) from one week to the next.

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