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Tue 05 March 2019

Testing tips: Tests that don't test

Posted by Simon Larsén in Testing   

Unit testing is a skill that takes some time to develop, and there are numerous pitfalls for the beginner. As I've done my fair share of unit testing, and taught a lot of students what I know, I've decided to share my top tips of things to think about when testing. First up is one that may seem obvious, but beginners and experienced testers alike fail with on occasion: make sure you are actually testing something.

Tests that don't test

Quite often, I find tests written by students that don't actually test anything, and will pass regardless of what the student's code is doing. Sometimes, I find tests written by yours truly that are similarly ineffective. A test that passes when it should not is dangerous, because it makes you feel confident about code that isn't properly tested. On the flip side, a test that fails when it should not is annoying and may hamper productivity, but unlike a falsely positive test, it is highly noticeable. The devious part of tests that don't test is that they easily slip by unnoticed, you don't often investigate a test that passes! These tests generally come in four flavors:

  1. Not calling the function under test.
  2. Copy mistakes with references/pointers.
  3. Mistakes during setup.
  4. Mistakes with assertions.

Even though I have a few years worth of testing experience, and have written thousands upon thousands of tests, I still make these mistakes from time to time. Let's first go over them one by one to get a feel for what can go wrong. After that, I'll share my techniques for catching these errors. For all of the examples, we will look at a test case for sorting a randomly ordered list with an in-place sorting algorithm. The implementation under test is called mysort. Assume that, for all examples, a list called random_list with randomly ordered elements is setup in a fixture. The tests will be written in pytest syntax, but most problems and solutions are easily transferable to many other languages and testing frameworks (e.g. JUnit in Java). Here is the test header and docstring. Note the inclusion of the random_list fixture as a parameter. In the test, it can simply be used as a list.

def test_sort_randomly_ordered_list(random_list):
    """Sort a randomly ordered list and ensure that the result for
    ``mysort`` is the same as the built-in ``list.sort``

For brevity, the docstring will be excluded from now on. Let's get to it the, shall we?

Not calling the function under test

This mistake definitely sits in the top two most common ones that I encounter. A typical example of this is when using redundant computation to produce a test oracle. That is, using some other implementation of the function under test to compute the expected result. What I've seen happen many times is that the student by mistake uses the other implementation for both the expected value, and the actual value. Here's an example.

def test_sort_randomly_ordered_list(random_list):
    # calculate test oracle
    expected = list(random_list) # note the copy for later!

    # calculate actual value, use ``sort`` by mistake
    # should be ``mysort(random_list)``

    assert random_list == expected

Obviously, this test will always pass as list.sort is used for both computations. This is a very common mistake, and if made once in a test suite, I often find it propagating elsewhere due to copy-paste errors. This kind of mistake is applicable in most any language, and is especially easy to make if the redundant function and the function under test have similar names and usage (which was actually not the case here!).

Copy mistakes with references/pointers

Another very common issue that is often related to redundant computation is failing to make a proper copy of a data structure. If you have a look at the previous example, there is comment telling you to note the copy. Compare that with this example:

def test_sort_randomly_ordered_list(random_list):
    # calculate test oracle
    expected = random_list # this is not a copy!

    # calculate actual value

    assert random_list == expected

Just assigning expected = random_list will not create a copy of random_list, but copy the reference to the list. Therefore, both expected and random_list reference the same list. The assertion is then semantically equivalent to assert random_list == random_list, which is obviously true no matter what mysort did with the list. This is a problem in any language that uses references (not C++ references, but pointer-like references), such as Java and Python, or when dealing with pointers in pretty much any language that has them.

Mistakes during setup

This is also fairly common, and can manifest in a variety of ways. The general idea is that the setup is performed such that the outcome of the test is very likely to be the same even if the production code is anything but correct. One example would be that the supposedly randomly ordered list is actually comprised of duplicates of a single element. Let's have a look at an incorrect implementation of the random_list fixture. Note that _ is used as a variable name when we don't care about the value of it.

def random_list():
    """Generate a randomly ordered list with 100 elements."""
    lst = []
    for _ in range(100):
        random.seed(5234) # seed to make list generation deterministic
        lst.append(random.randint(-100, 100))
    return lst

It is good practice to seed the pseudo-random generator (PRG) when testing to make tests reproducible. A PRG is actually a deterministic function that, given an initial state (a seed), will always produce the same sequence of numbers. random.seed(5234) sets this initial state to 5234. This fixture is actually fairly well implemented, but has a critical error. Since the seed is set inside the loop, before the call to random.randint, the latter will always produce the same value. As the list is already sorted, mysort can do almost anything but remove an element and still pass the test. This is a fairly sophisticated error that an intermediate tester may accidentally make. There are infinite variations on how setup may go wrong, and this is applicable to pretty much any programming language. As a side note, the correct way to do this would of course be to seed before the loop. Note that even with the correct configuration, there is a very small chance that the random elements are generated in ascending order.

Mistakes with assertions

The final issue is also common, and comes in many shapes and forms. One thing I sometimes see is that the assertions are tautologies, such as assert random_list == random_list (obviously true), and probably mostly result from typos and unchecked auto-completion. Another common one is that assertions are simply missing, and is most often found in tests that are large enough that a missing line or two is not immediately apparent.

Finding tests that don't test

There are essentially two ways I know of to find tests that (pretty much) never fail.

  1. Write the tests first (Test-driven development)
  2. Inject errors into production code and expect tests to fail

Test-driven development (TDD)

TDD involves writing the test cases before you implement the functionality. You first write the test cases, ensure that the test cases fail, and then implement the production code such that the tests pas. I typically use TDD when:

  • The functionality I need to implement is strictly defined.
    • Fox example when implementing well-defined algorithms and data structures.
  • I'm fixing a bug.
    • Reproduce the bug with a test-case, then fix it!

This approach will catch many incarnations of the errors I've brought up in this article simply because the tests should definitely not pass before the production code is even written. There is one caveat, though. Some practitioners of TDD think that test cases should be written even before the function skeletons have been written, and argue that a compilation failure is also a test failure. With that approach, you probably will not catch any of the errors brought up here, except maybe the first one. My recommendation for TDD is to write function skeletons and make sure the function can actually be called (it's perfectly fine if it crashes after being called). Then write your tests, and make sure they fail before you start implementing production code. I don't think TDD is always practical to use, however, especially when I'm a bit unsure of what to do and need to experiment with different APIs. That's when the second technique comes in real handy.

Inject errors into production code and expect tests to fail

This is a highly useful technique that can always be performed, and I do this almost every time I implement tests after production code. The idea is simply to consider what your test is testing, and inject errors into the production code such that the test should fail. test_sort_randomly_ordered_list is a fairly broad test case, so we can inject fairly general errors. A simple example would simply be to return early such that mysort does not sort at all. Narrower test cases may require more sophisticated errors to be injected.

Aside: Mutation testing There is actually a whole field of testing dedicated to this kind of error (or fault) injection called mutation testing. Faults are automatically injected into production code, and the test suite is run to determine whether the fault is found (killed) or not. There are frameworks for this, such as the Pitest for Java, and Cosmic Ray for Python. In general, it takes a long time to run mutation testing on a test suite, as often the whole test suite needs to be run for a single fault. And there are many, many possible faults.


While I framed this as a unit testing article, these concepts are applicable to most kinds of testing. You should always attempt to make sure that your test is doing what it claims to be doing. A single typo may be what stands between a test that does not test, and a test that does. This article focused on finding tests that don't test, but there are also things you can do to prevent tests that don't test from manifesting. Copy/pasting test code and then making minor changes is for example a common source of most of the discussed errors. But ultimately, there is no surefire way of avoiding tests that don't test, so I strongly recommend that you actively search for them no matter what precautions you take!