Tests can be understood in one of two ways; they are either culminating events or they are gateway events. Most tests administered in classrooms are likely culminating events. At the end of a unit of study, tests are administered to determine the degree to which the information was retained. After the test, the students can safely forget it as they have demonstrated they knew it. (Of course, if it is something they need later—perhaps they need to differentiate equations in physics class—the teacher is original teacher is likely to report, “well they knew it then,” which is equivalent to reporting, “I taught it, but they didn’t learn it.”
Gateways tests, on the other hand, are given when one first enters a field and one is expected to be able to continue to use the knowledge tested. Professional licensing exams are an example of gateways tests, and they tend to be approached in different ways. For many community colleges programs that prepare students for gateway tests, their accreditation depends on how well their students perform on those tests, so they are taken very seriously.
There is a fundamental difference between what I have labeled cumulative and gateway tests, that may not be apparent, but that has important implications for how students and instructors approach them. Whereas cumulative tests have little meaning beyond the classroom, gateway tests have meaning to outside audiences.