Three Tips for Developing Elementary Math Tests

Tips for Educators Updated September 24, 2015

Girl with an A+ on her math testElementary math tests are an essential part of the assessment process. Without the information that test results provide, it is nearly impossible for teachers to accurately determine whether or not students understand or retain the material they are learning in class.

Because test results are so important, designing appropriate tests to assess student progress is paramount. How, then, should teachers develop elementary math tests that accurately measure the success or failure of student learning? Here are three elementary math test tips.

Three tips for developing elementary math tests

Here are three things teachers should consider when they are in the planning stages of test development.

Demonstrate arithmetic through show and tell

Early elementary students are usually very concrete learners and can often understand concepts in a hands-on way even when they are not able to accurately articulate it verbally. When at all possible, allow  students to show what they have learned with physical — or even virtual — props. For instance, students could demonstrate their understanding of basic mathematical concepts by adding or subtracting objects from a group or construct basic geometrical objects on paper or from straws or popsicle sticks.

Even interactive computer games can be used to test an individual student’s understanding of math. Many of these types of games are available for free on the Internet, including, for example, the resources available at the National Library of Virtual Manipulatives.

Use both timed and un-timed tests to develop math skills

Math skills can be divided roughly into two parts — problem-solving and rote memory. Both skills are equally valuable. The analytical, problem-solving side of math is important for working through story problems and understanding complex mathematical operations. Testing for this type of understanding should not be timed. Students need to know they can take as long as they need to puzzle their way through the work.

Rote memory is an important skill for a fundamental reason: without a quickly accessible database of facts such as multiplication tables, further understanding of math problems is simply impossible. Therefore, you should encourage a solid understanding of the basics with timed tests. A word of caution, however — according to an article in Education Week, timed tests can cause young students to develop test anxiety and lose confidence in their math abilities. Timed tests should be used to build rote memory skills, not to grade students on how many problems they are able to solve.

Mix and match types of math questions

Every subject — even one as concrete as mathematics — can be assessed in many different ways. When designing elementary math tests, teachers can include true and false questions, multiple-choice questions and questions that employ problem-solving skills. According to the “Improving Your Test Questions” page of the Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, every type of math problem has both positive attributes and drawbacks. Multiple-choice questions, for example, offer “highly reliable test scores.” On the other hand, they can take a lot of time to create and encourage students to simply guess at the answers. By using many different types of questions on any given test, teachers can take advantage of the best attributes of all of them without weighing their assessments down with the negatives.

It’s elementary math fluency that matters

Students gaining and retaining knowledge of each subject is what matters most in any school setting. Elementary math tests are just one tool available to teachers to measure both of those important factors. Whether tests show that students are learning or reveal knowledge gaps, important data has been gathered. By using good testing tools, teachers will either have the satisfaction of their students succeeding, or will be able to modify the teaching style and curriculum.

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