Most of us have given a pretest and then realized upon looking at the results that no student was able to answer any of the questions correctly. This can be a frustrating experience for both students and teachers and feel like wasted time. I hear teachers say, “I don’t need to give a pretest to know that none of my students know how to do this. I haven’t taught it yet.”
But… this feeling is not the fault of the concept of pretesting itself, it is often the fault of pretests that are narrowly constructed.
The best pretests stretch both up and down, meaning that there are questions on the test that, when answered correctly, not only show if the student understands the grade-level concepts, but also questions that show if the student remembers the concepts from the previous year (stretching down). These questions can make the students feel more successful when taking the pretest, and can also show the teacher which students best remember the previous concepts.
It is also a good idea to have a few questions that “stretch up” and touch on concepts that might not be part of the true curriculum until the next unit (or school year, depending on the concept).
Broadening the scope of the types of questions on a pretest can help to produce data that teachers can use to better design their instruction and group students, and can make pretesting feel more like the truly valuable strategy that it is.