What’s The Point of Diagnostic Tests?

Our focus for quality teaching at NBCS this year is the following process – Analyse, Diagnose, Act. The aim is to analyse the situation, diagnose what’s going on and then act on this. We also aim to continue this process in a cyclical manner throughout a teaching and learning situation.

Today, as is usually the way at the beginning of the year, we conducted a Mathematics diagnostic test for Stage 3 (Year 5/6). As I wandered through the students (who, for the most part, were diligently completing their tests). I found myself asking “Is this the best way to diagnose what my students know (and, conversely, don’t know) about Mathematics?” Here were some things I noticed:

  • Students did not demonstrate process
  • Students did not demonstrate thinking
  • Students did not demonstrate reasoning
  • Some students were able to operate with number accurately

As my colleague and I diligently sat with our students going through the correct answers… my questioning about the value of diagnostic tests became stronger and stronger. We began to notice more and more variables:

  • Davy didn’t see the decimal point in Q5b – what am I diagnosing is the problem there and what is the action?
  • Sarah wrote the numerical words for Q8c – does she understand expanded notation? Is she even wrong?
  • Sam did not demonstrate trading in his addition algorithm – does he know how to do it? Should he have to write it down every time if he does it in his head?

Even worse, we were haphazardly trying to have students reason their thinking as we talked through the answers… Why were we doing this? It was definitely a faster way to mark… but, coming up with a percentage out of 100 was not going to help me “Analyse, Diagnose, Act”. I would still be needing to analyse and diagnose the test anyway.

And, even if I did actually manage to notice patterns and diagnose specifics in individuals, was I actually going to change my program to act on this diagnosis? Confession time – I haven’t before… despite having asked my students to complete about 50 thousand tests.

So… the outcome…

ANALYSE – Diagnostic assessments are valuable but we need to use the correct tests

DIAGNOSE – We need to find and implement effective tests that allow students to demonstrate reasoning and thinking and process

ACT – I’m going to ensure that the next Diagnostic tests we use are, actually, diagnostic


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