Differentiated Testing Offers Greater Flexibility and less Stress

After a year of virtual testing plagued by Zoom glitches, Google form typos, and hours upon hours of staring at a screen, it was a relief to resume a more normal testing cycle this year. During periods of virtual learning last year, teachers became more creative with their tests, as the monitoring of students during classic closed-book, timed assessments became impractical. Now that we’re back on campus, the lessons we learned from last school year stay with us.

Tests are an important part of curricula starting as young as kindergarten. It’s important for teachers to evaluate the knowledge of their students to better understand how well they have communicated the material. However, tests are not the only possible form of evaluation. In foreign language, English, and History classes, writing assignments and presentations may be used in place of tests. In Science, labs and projects may serve the same function. The concept of giving students options other than tests to evaluate their knowledge is called “differentiated testing.”

After a year with very few “normal” tests, differentiated testing is becoming more common at Potomac, especially in the English and History departments. Ms. Tory Virchow, as both the Director of Curriculum and Academics and an English teacher, sees the value in differentiating assessments, especially among older students. All students at Potomac have different and unique strengths. Why is it fair to give everyone a test when half the class would show their knowledge more clearly through an essay? On the other hand, is it fair to let different students complete different assignments for the same assessment? Ms. Virchow has a creative solution. Even before virtual school, she was thinking about how to make her classroom a better environment for all learners. She liked the idea of differentiating assessments, but points out that, especially among younger students, she didn’t want them to go the whole year without getting practice in one area. Her solution was this: at the end of three major units, students could choose to either write an essay, take a test, or create a presentation,but they had to choose a different form of evaluation for each unit. This way, students would get to practice all three. Ms. Virchow also thinks that, “Especially as students get older, there’s value to applying the foundational material they have in their heads.” Older students already have the foundational material they need, and can begin to use it in different and creative ways.

In addition to academic benefits, differentiated testing has a positive impact on mental health. When students are given choices of testing formats, they have the opportunity to make decisions that they feel are best for them. This leads students to feel more confident and comfortable both before and throughout the assessment.

However, a test is still a test, no matter what form it’s in. And at Potomac, it’s hard not to be stressed about tests. Guidance counselor Mrs. Woods has a few suggestions on how to make tests less stress-inducing to students. First, think about the moment you’re taking the test. What will help you feel calm? Is it noise canceling headphones? Is it a fidget to play with while you concentrate on the assessment? Is it practicing breathing techniques throughout the test? Feeling calm and focused during a test will help calm your jitters. Another way to destress is to think about the big picture idea of success. In an environment like Potomac, “in which students are trying to do their best, and really, what that means, is getting an A.” Mrs. Woods points out that being successful doesn’t have to mean getting the best grade. Instead, it’s important to think about what success looks like to you. Does it mean getting an A on every single test you take? Does it mean studying for hours on end the night before a big assessment? Or does it mean trying your best and accepting the outcome? Changing your definition of success can help you focus on working hard and trying your best, as opposed to being stressed about the outcome.