What’s a pattern-based item?

The first thing you’ll notice, if you sample some, is that there can be more than one right answer to a question. And we don’t say how many right answers the question has. It may have one, two three, or even four. A perfect response matches exactly the correct choices, but the student receives partial credit for every correct choice she marks. For example, if the full credit response is ABC and the student chooses ABC, she gets one point for that item, but if she guesses AB, she gets a hefty percentage score. If she guesses only A or only B or only C, she receives a smaller percentage score. If she chooses AD she gets the percentage credit for A and no points taken off for D.

Here’s the point: in a traditional test item, the answer is either right or wrong — either full credit or no credit. That kind of item only provides two possible pieces of information about the student’s understanding: thumbs up or thumbs down. In stark contrast, a pattern-based item has 16 possible answer combinations. It offers the teacher eight times as much information about the student’s knowledge as the traditional item.

And the difference isn’t just the quantity of information. In a PBI, the choices show different patterns of student understanding. For example, one of the correct choices may demonstrate basic grade level comprehension and another correct choice may call for more advanced grasp of a concept. Or one correct choice may demonstrate knowledge of one thinking skill while another correct answer relies on another thinking skill.

As a result, each answer combination provides the teacher with a full, nuanced view of the student’s strengths and weaknesses in understanding the content. For example, in math, an item may ask the student to choose among four different ways of expressing the fraction 2/3. The correct answers might be 1/3 + 1/3 and .67. If the student answers only 1/3 + 1/3, the teacher knows that the student understands how to add fractions but not how to convert fractions into decimals. If the student gives both correct answers, the teacher knows the student understands both concepts. GenEd tests include teacher notes and student feedback for every choice on every item, making comprehension issues clear.

The teacher can use that information to help the student learn. During the next class session, she can commend the student for adding fractions correctly and then guide the student to review converting fractions into decimals. She can use this information almost instantly, because GenEd’s patent-pending software collects and analyses her class’s responses as soon as the test ends. That way, the same students who took the test can learn by examining their answers. Compare this to the usual standardized assessment, where the student doesn’t get the chance to work with her own test results, and thus learns nothing from them.

Teachers like our assessment model because it helps them improve their instruction. Students prefer our tests to traditional ones because ours awaken their brains rather than just making them repeat tedious facts. Imagine you’re a student, and you find that you got Item 9 on the language arts test wrong. What’s your reaction? A disappointed shrug and a keen desire to forget that item. Now imagine you’re the same student and you find you got two out of three correct correct on Item 9. What’s your reaction? You tell yourself, “I got two out of three. That’s pretty good. What choice did I miss? Why is that one correct, too?” You’re mentally engaged, and you feel like a success, not a failure.

Here’s another advantage of pattern-based items: Because there’s so much more information per item, our tests can be significantly shorter than old-fashioned standardized tests. If you recall your own experience taking standardized tests, the main thing you’ll probably remember is that they were stupefyingly boring. They practically put you to sleep. You answered on autopilot, fighting off fatigue. That didn’t boost your scores much! In contrast, students taking PBI-based tests are typically interested and alert, with the result that their scores show what they really know. And that’s what tests are really for, isn’t it? It’s time that assessment took its rightful place in education, both as a more accurate measure of students’ progress, and as an active contributor to helping students learn and teachers teach.

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