5 Reasons Why Classical Tests Don’t Show Your Real Level

During our student’s life, tests are the worst things happening. It’s stressful and determine your grades and at the same time if you will pass or not. But the first goal of these instruments of torture is not to make you stressed, It’s to give you and your teacher a feedback your level of mastery on a certain topic. But are these feedbacks really relevant ? Do they really represent what you know ?

But mom ! It depends on the teacher !

Teachers are human

As you noticed, sometimes at school some students will say “My teacher is stricter than others” or “She doesn’t like me”. Even if it’s true in some cases and that these teachers are definitely not good educators, I still think the majority don’t really focus on the name written on the paper. Unfortunately, teachers are also humans and they can do errors. Let’s imagine a teacher who is having hard time outside school, do you think that teacher will forgot everything when entering a class or during the correction of your homeworks ? No, because it’s impossible. Of course, they should forget everything and focus only on what’s written or on the students but we need to understand them because we wouldn’t be perfect if we were at their place. “Oh no, not me ! I would not do things in that way”. If you said that and it’s realizable, it means that you’re never tired, angry, hungry, stressed, … All feelings which can distract us tend to result in errors.

Repetitive tasks

To give another example, you’re in a class with 29 other students, after an exam, you and your classmates put answers sheets on the table.. What’s next ? The teacher need to correct at least 30 pages( if we consider that the exam is one page long). He/She will see the same questions, the same answers, stupid errors and sometimes try to find some clues on if you’re talking about the topic or the weather. That repetitive task is not something you would like to do, isn’t it ? Furthermore, this process of repetition lead to anger and tiredness which will result in ………… Yes, you got it : ERRORS !

Comparison between students

Let’s say your teacher is superhuman and doesn’t make mistakes. He/She will not get tired, angry, … He/She still have some rules provided by the school. Let me present you my favorite: The limitation of A+ grades. That rule is not explicit but it exists concretely. The concept is simple, for every class only 3 students can have an A+ grade. Can someone explain me this concretely ? What’s the meaning of it ? If 5 students have perfectly answered to every questions, how do we choose ? External parameters ? Isn’t it a little bit subjective ? Even if, we have a low chance to be in that case for a small class, it can be the case for bigger ones. And that rule is not alone, it’s followed by some absurd ones. So the fault is not necessarily on the teacher but maybe on schools too.

Same score, Same level ?

Let’s start that part with an image :


Now that you are aware of the situation, I would like to ask as you a question: Do you consider that these two students have the same level ? Think about it a little bit before to read the following paragraph. For those who answered: “Paul is definitely better because he answered the hardest question”, I would like to ask you two questions: What if he’s lacking some knowledge which were on the easy and not in hard question (test poorly designed)? What if the hardest question was easy to guess from Paul’s point of view ? For the others who are supporting Edward by saying: “Compared to Paul he has strong bases”, I would like to ask you two questions too: What if Paul’s error was an inattention mistake ? How can Edward be better if he doesn’t answer the most challenging questions ? Of course I would like to hear from you about this case but here is not the point. As you can see, the classical test system will give the same score to these two students. But I’m sure we can all agree on that point: The feedback is not complete. We don’t really care about who’s the best but we care about what knowledge we need to teach or reinforce. It exists some solutions to design better tests and if you’re interested in it, here is the Wikipedia of one of these: Item response theory.

Same test for everyone ?

As you may noticed in the article 5 reasons why you lost time in school, I’m fighting the one size fits all concept of current educational system. It is the same here, How can we assess the real level of a student if the exam is not personalized ? Let’s say that you’re a great student and you understand everything of the current topic you’re studying, you arrive at the exam, take a look at the paper and start to write. 30 minutes later, you’re already sleeping on the table, bored and angry because you can’t go out until the others finish. You furnished zero effort, the test will say you know everything about the topic (your real level) but without challenging you a little bit to make you like what you learn. Let’s now see the opposite case. You know a little about the topic, you enter the room, take a look at the paper, you try hard (we do not talk about lazy persons or those who abandon here !) for all the exam and finally you did just the first easy exercises. I’m not saying we should give test only on knowledges that students knows or give only challenging exercises to ‘top students’. I’m saying that we should adapt the level of challenge to each student, it would give better feedbacks on the student’s level of mastery. Then of course, we should be careful to not let students feel they are worse or better than they really are, and of course it’s a hard task but we need to work on more accurate solutions to be able to let students learn optimally.

What about guessing ?

I already talked about the act of guessing in the part showing the case of Paul and Edward but now I would like to introduce you why it fakes the assessment of your real level. First, I want to recall that the only person’s fault here is: YOU (if you’re guessing). Guessing is the worst thing you can do in the process of learning. The teacher will be mistaken about your level and more importantly you’ll unconsciously think like you know that knowledge.  On a properly designed exam, the probability of guessing an answer is really low so this process doesn’t play a big role on faking your level of knowledge but It’s still possible to have good answer by saying: “Hmmmm, that one !”. Some solutions exist to solve that problem. The first one is to improve yourself on recognizing that you are actually doing that. It’s easy to say trust me. Most of us do this instinctively as a kind of ‘survival skill’. The second one is based the possibility of computers to say if you’re guessing or not (with a margin error). During a test on computer, the software can say something like: “I think you’re a guessing, be careful”. These solution can’t really solve the problem because it’s a human and unconscious problem but they actually can diminish it.

Think outside the box

Some of us are more creative than others and sometimes these creative people are underrated. The actual test system is designed to give a score based on defined methods and results. If you’re wrong on the result I think it’s that you have a problem on the method you used. But what about the case you have the right result but not the same method ? Does it means your method is wrong ? It’s possible that you have the good result with a bad method but it’s not always the case. You can have a different method (by different I mean different than the one you learned at school) which is working, it’s no impossible. The current test method will say: You need to use the method … to answer that question. So you’ll have a bad score. The exams doesn’t reflect perfectly the level of knowledge and don’t take into account your level of creativity. Creativity is one of the biggest skill that a student (who will become researcher, businessman, etc…) need to have. How can he/she solve problems in life without creativity and without seeing the method to solve it at school ?

Some questions

  • Wouldn’t it be better to automatize the process of exam correction ?
  • Should we create personalized online test for each student ?
  • Is it possible to find a way to define the level of creativity ? and find ways to improve it ?
  • Can we prevent people guessing ?
  • Can we create an accurate way to define the difficulty of an exercise and how much it reflects your knowledge ?

These questions are essential in the development of our educational system, some of them already have solutions but nothing widely applied, Some questions are making a lot of noise like the one on automatizing some teachers’ responsibilities, and some are maybe impossible to solve for now. But we need to evolve, try and discover to finally be able to make tests reflect our real level.


To conclude, we saw that the current testing method is not giving a good feedback to both students and teachers. It can be due to a teacher’s mistake, a school’s rule, a lack of personalization of content, a student’s instinct or a missing component in the evaluation. Without doubt we need to improve these points as far as possible if we want the students to be sure about their level but also to help the teachers/computers providing better content. If you have some thoughts, if you have questions or if you have stories you want to share with me, I would love to hear about it. You can find all my contacts at the bottom of the page.

Written on December 20, 2017