According to Clark Quinn in this eLearn Article:
There is one role for pre-tests, and that is in the realm of allowing students to test out of a course. Learners should be allowed to skip the content they already know if they can demonstrate competency. This is to the great benefit of the learner. But when pre-testing is used to demonstrate mastery for this purpose, it should be an option, not a requirement. So please, don’t abuse your learners. Give pre-tests only to allow the learner to test-out of specific material. And don’t give in to de facto standards that dictate every course start with a pre-test. Use assessment properly, to demonstrate mastery.
I agree that pre-testing is not of much value unless it triggers some action. This reminds me of the proficiency-based training we used for training military helicopter pilots. Learning how to fly an aircraft is an expensive endeavour and each flight costs several thousand dollars. Minimizing training time, without compromising standards, was one of our objectives.
Flight training was divided into about 35 “air lesson plans” and each one was about 1.5 hours. At the end of certain lessons, students had to have achieved mastery of specific skills, such as hovering or completing a circuit. Additional time in the aircraft could be provided, with counseling, but after a certain number of hours students were expected to achieve the performance requirement. Conversely, if a student achieved the performance requirement in fewer lessons, he or she could skip one or more lessons and move on to the next stage. In this way, a student could complete the course days or weeks earlier than scheduled and at a lower cost for the training establishment. For pilots who were already spending a lot of time away from home, this was a positive incentive.
As Clark mentions in his article, if you can demonstrate mastery then training is not necessary. For learning professionals, it is important to design tests that can validate competency. This is an overlooked area of instructional design as too much effort is spent on delivering content, in my opinion. Another rule that we had in military training, though not always followed, was to design the proficiency test before developing any training. The proficiency test had to correlate with the job performance area that was being addressed. In this way, the direct link between training and job performance was obvious. Considering my last post, this could be a good thing for the training department.