Skip to main content

Testing your procedures with RackUnit

Monday, 18 February 2019
As you develop procedures and collections of procedures, you have a responsibility to make sure that they work correctly. One mechanism for checking your procedures is a comprehensive suite of tests. In this reading, we consider the design and use of tests. We also consider RackUnit, the testing framework that comes with DrRacket.


Most computer programmers strive to write clear, efficient, and correct code. It is (usually) easy to determine whether code is clear. With some practice and knowledge of the correct tools, one can determine how efficient code is. However, believe it or not, it is often difficult to determine whether code is correct.

The gold standard of correctness is a formal proof that the procedure or program is correct. However, in order to prove a program or procedure correct, one must develop a rich mathematical toolkit and devote significant effort to writing the proof. Such effort is worth it for life-critical applications. However, for many programs, the effort and time required for a formal proof are often more than can be reasonably expected.

There is also a disadvantage of formal proof: Code often changes and the proof must therefore also change. Why does code change? At times, the requirements of the code change (e.g., a procedure that was to do three related things is now expected to do four related things). At other times, with experience, programmers realize that they can improve the code by making a few changes. If we require that all code be proven correct, and if changing code means rewriting the proof, then we discourage programmers from changing their code.

Hence, we need other ways to have some confidence that our code is correct. A typical mechanism is a test suite, a collection of tests that are unlikely to all succeed if the code being tested is erroneous. One nice aspect of a test suite is that when you make changes, you can simply re-run the test suite and see if all the tests succeed. To many, test suites encourage programmers to experiment with improving their code, since good suites will tell them immediately whether or not the changes they have made are successful.

But when and how do you develop tests? These questions are the subject of this reading.

What is a test?

As the introduction suggested, you should write tests when you write code. But what is a test? Put simply, a test is a bit of code that reveals something about the correctness of a procedure or a set of procedures. Most typically, we express tests in terms of expressions and their expected values.

For example, suppose we’ve written a procedure, remove-negatives, that removes negative numbers from a list and keeps the remainder of the values in the same order,

  • (remove-negatives (list)) is the empty list.
  • (remove-negatives (list 3)) is equal to (list 3)
  • (remove-negatives (list 3 7 11)) is equal to (list 3 7 11)
  • (remove-negatives (list -1 3 7 11)) is equal to (list 3 7 11)
  • (remove-negatives (list -1 3 -2 7 -3 11)) is equal to (list 3 7 11)
  • (remove-negatives (list -1 -2 -3)) is the empty list.

You might even expect to see the first as a postcondition of remove-negatives. You might also expect to see the others as postconditions (i.e. “if none of the elements in lst are negative, then result is lst”). You’ll find that we often base our tests on the postconditions.

We could express those expectations in a variety of ways. The simplest strategy is to execute each expression, in turn, and see if the result is what we expected. You may have be using this form of testing regularly in your coding. (We often call this “experimenting with your code” to distinguish it from the kinds of testing we introduce in this reading.)

> (remove-negatives (list))
> (remove-negatives (list 3))
> (remove-negatives (list 3 7 11))
'(3 7 11)
> (remove-negatives (list -1 3 7 11))
'(3 7 11)
> (remove-negatives (list -1 3 -2 7 -3 11))
'(3 7 11)
> (remove-negatives (list -1 -2 -3))

One disadvantage of this kind of testing is that you have to manually look at the results to make sure that they are correct. You also have to know what the correct answers should be. But reading isn’t always a good strategy. There’s some evidence that you don’t always catch errors when you have to do this comparison, particularly when you have a lot of tests. We know that we’ve certainly missed a number of errors this way. An appendix to this document presents an interesting historical anecdote about the dangers of writing a test suite in which you must manually read all of the results.

Since reading the results is tedious and perhaps even dangerous, it is often useful to have the computer do the comparison for you. For example, we might write a procedure, check, that checks to make sure that two expressions are equal. (This procedure uses if, which you have not learned yet. But you should be able understand the general approach.)

(define check
  (lambda (exp1 exp2)
     (if (equal? exp1 exp2)

We can then use this procedure for the tests above, as follows.

> (check (remove-negatives (list)) 
> (check (remove-negatives (list 3))
         (list 3))
> (check (remove-negatives (list 3 7 11))
         (list 3 7 11))
> (check (remove-negatives (list -1 3 7 11))
         (list 3 7 11))
> (check (remove-negatives (list -1 3 -2 7 -3 11))
         (list 3 7 11))
> (check (remove-negatives (list -1 3 2 7 - 113))
         (list 3 7 11))
> (check (remove-negatives (list -1 -2 -3))

Note that in the penultimate test, the test itself, rather than remove-negatives, was incorrect.

Confirming that our code is correct is now simply a matter of scanning through the results and seeing if any say "FAILED". And, as importantly, we’ve specified the expected result along with each expression, so we don’t need to look it up manually.

Of course, there are still some disadvantages with this strategy. For example, if we put the tests in a file to execute one by one, it may be difficult to tell which ones failed. Also, for a large set of tests, it seems a bit excessive to print OK every time. Finally, we get neither OK nor FAILED when there’s an error in the original expression.

In fact, if an error occurs in the middle of a group of tests, the whole thing may come to a screeching halt.

> (check (remove-negatives 5) (list 1 2 3))
. . car: contract violation
  expected: pair?
    given: 5

Testing frameworks

To handle these and other issues, many program development environments now include some form of testing framework. And even when they don’t, languages often have accompanying testing frameworks. While testing frameworks differ, they tend to share some commonalities.

First, most testing frameworks provide a way for you to check expected results. That’s a lot like our check procedure above. That is, we have a value we expect and an expression; we evaluate the expression; and we compare the result to the expected value. We will refer to procedures used to check expected results as “checks”.

Second, most testing frameworks provide a way to group checks into test cases. Why would we need more than one check in a test case ? Sometimes, it’s because we need to check multiple things about a result. For example, if we want to make sure that (median lst) has the right value, we might want to check that (a) the return value is a real number, (b) half the numbers in the list are less than the return value, and (c) half the numbers in the list are greater than the return value. But other times, the tester feels it’s natural to put a lot of related checks into a single test case—if any of them fail, the whole test case fails. How do you divide checks into tests? In some sense, it’s a matter of taste. Some testers like just a few checks per test case. Others like a lot.

Finally, most testing frameworks provide a way to group individual test cases into test suites. Why do we need groups of tests? Because we often have multiple procedures to test, both individually and in groups, and we want to run all of the tests to ensure that everything works together. For example, we might provide a library of a variety of related functions and want to test the whole library en masse.

So, when you first encounter a new testing framework, you should ask yourself three questions: How do you check for expected results? How do you group checks into test cases? And how do you group test cases into suites? (You should also ask a few related questions, such as how you run the tests.)

RackUnit: A testing framework for Racket

The designers of the Racket programming language designed a testing framework to go with the language. They call this framework “RackUnit”. As you might expect, RackUnit framework is well integrated in DrRacket.

By default, RackUnit is not available to your program. (Why not? Because there are many libraries that Racket programmers might use, and the designers of Racket decided that the default should be to only include those that the programmer deems necessary.) To load RackUnit, add the following to the top of the definitions pane.

(require rackunit)
(require rackunit/text-ui)

RackUnit provides a variety of procedures that we can use to check results. Most of them take an expected result, an input expression, and an optional message.

(check-= expression expected epsilon), (check-= expression expected epsilon optional-message) [requires rackunit]
Evaluate expression ... expected and then compare them for numeric equality (within *epsilon). If they are equal, do nothing. If they are not equal, print an error message. If the optional message is included, also print that message.
(check-equal? expression expected), (check-equal? expression expected optional-message) [requires rackunit]
Evaluate expression ... expected and then compare them for equality. If they are equal, do nothing. If they are not equal, print an error message. If the optional message is included, also print that message.
(check-not-equal? expression expected), (check-not-equal? expression expected optional-message) [requires rackunit]
Evaluate expression ... expected and then compare them. If they are not equal, do nothing. If they are equal, print an error message. If the optional message is included, also print that message.

Although we will typically put checks into tests, we can run them on their own. When they succeed, they print no result. When they fail, they print an error message. For example,

> (check-= 4 4 0)
> (check-= 4 (* 2 2) 0 "two times two is four")
> (check-= 2 (* (sqrt 2) (sqrt 2)) 0.00001 "sqrt 2 squared, approximate")
> (check-= 2 (* (sqrt 2) (sqrt 2)) 0 "sqrt 2 squared, exact")
Error! --------------------
Error! name:       check-=
Error! location:   (stdin #f #f 230 59)
Error! expression: (check-= 2 (* (sqrt 2) (sqrt 2)) 0)
Error! params:     (2 2.0000000000000004 0)
Error! message:    "sqrt 2 squared, exact"
Error! Check failure
Error! --------------------

We group checks into tests with test-case.

(test-case description check-1 ... check-n) [requires rackunit]
Create a new test case by running a series of checks.

Note that test-case runs the test immediately. Sometimes that’s useful; sometimes we’d like to build up a bunch of tests for running later. And that’s where test suites come into play.

(test-suite description check-or-test-or-suite-1 ... check-or-test-or-suite-n) [requires rackunit]
Create a new test suite that groups together a variety of checks, tests, and other suites. Unlike tests and checks, which are executed immediately, test suites are objects that can be run separately.

Note that, unlike test-case, test-suite does not run the tests. Instead, it builds a suite that we can later run with run-tests. (Why make the distinction? Sometimes it ends up being easier to have the tests grouped so that you can easily redefine them.) So, whenever you make a test suite, you’ll probably have to name it with define.

Let’s return to our procedure to remove negative values and consider how we might put together our simple checks. Here’s one approach: We can just type them directly.

> (check-equal? (remove-negatives (list)) 
                "empty list")
> (check-equal? (remove-negatives (list 3))
                (list 3)
                "singleton list - no negatives")
> (check-equal? (remove-negatives (list 3 7 11))
                (list 3 7 11)
                "no negatives")
> (check-equal? (remove-negatives (list -1 3 7 11))
                (list 3 7 11)
                "negative at front of list")
> (check-equal? (remove-negatives (list -1 3 -2 7 -3 11))
                (list 3 7 11)
> (check-equal? (remove-negatives (list -1 -2 -3))
                "all negative")

We might also find it useful to put them together into a suite.

(define test-remove-negatives
   "Tests of remove-negatives"
    "small lists"
    (check-equal? (remove-negatives (list)) 
                  "empty list")
    (check-equal? (remove-negatives (list 3))
                  (list 3)
                  "singleton list - positive")
    (check-equal? (remove-negatives (list 0))
                  (list 0)
                  "singleton list - zero")
    (check-equal? (remove-negatives (list - 1))
                  "singleton list - negative"))
    "all positive"
    (check-equal? (remove-negatives (list 3 7 11))
                  (list 3 7 11)
                  "three elements"))
    (check-equal? (remove-negatives (list -1 3 7 11))
                  (list 3 7 11)
                  "negative at front of list")
    (check-equal? (remove-negatives (list -1 3 -2 7 -3 11))
                  (list 3 7 11)
    (check-equal? (remove-negatives (list -1 -2 -3 1 -2 -3 2 -3 -4 5))
                  (list 1 2 5)
                  "sequences of negatives"))
    "all negative"
    (check-equal? (remove-negatives (list -1 -2 -3))

We can then run the tests.

> (run-tests test-remove-negatives)
Tests of remove-negatives > small lists
small lists
. . negative?: contract violation
  expected: real?
  given: #<procedure:->

3 success(es) 0 failure(s) 1 error(s) 4 test(s) run

Whoops! There seems to have been an error. Where? We can tell. It’s somewhere in the small lists section. Oh, I see, I typed - 1 rather than -1. Let me fix that error and see what happens.

> (run-tests test-remove-negatives)
4 success(es) 0 failure(s) 0 error(s) 4 test(s) run

Ah, that’s much nicer.

When to write tests

To many programmers, testing is much like documentation. That is, it’s something you add after you’ve written the majority of the code. However, testing, like documentation, can make it much easier to write the code in the first place.

As we suggested in the reading on documentation, by writing documentation first, you develop a clearer sense of what you want your procedures to accomplish. Taking the time to write documentation can also help you think through the special cases. For some programmers, writing the formal postconditions can give them an idea of how to solve the problem.

If you design your tests first, you can accomplish similar goals. For example, if you think carefully about what tests might fail, you make sure the special cases are handled. Also, a good set of tests of the form “this expression should have this value” can serve as a form of documentation for the reader, explaining through example what the procedure is to do. There is even a popular style of software engineering, called test-driven development (TDD), in which you always write the tests first. Test-driven development is a key part of a variety of so-called “agile software development strategies”.

Self checks

Start DrRacket and add (require rackunit) and (require rackunit/text-ui) to your definitions pane and click Run.

Check 1: RackUnit experiments

RackUnit provides a variety of procedures to help you write tests. They are described above.

In the Interactions pane, try each of the operations (check-=, check-equal?, and check-not-equal?) a few times to make sure that you understand their operation. You should also look for both matching and non-matching expression and expected. And you should see what happens when you include and do not include the message.

Is this check vague? Yes. That’s intentional. We’re at the point in the course when you should make it a matter of course (no pun intended) to try different inputs to see what happens.

Check 2: Checking check-=

Explain, in your own words, what purpose the third parameter to check-= serves. (If you can’t, you may want to conduct some more experiments.)

Check 3: Testing bound-grade

Sketch a test suite for the bound-grade procedure, which takes a real number as input and outputs

  • That number, if it is between 0 and 100, inclusive.
  • Zero, if it is less than 0.
  • 100, if it is greater than 100.

Appendix: An historical tale

Many of us are reminded of the need for unit testing by the following story by Doug McIlroy, posted to The Risks Digest: Forum on Risks to the Public in Computers and Related Systems:

Sometime around 1961, a customer of the Bell Labs computing center questioned a value returned by the sine routine. The cause was simple: a card had dropped out of the assembly language source. Bob Morris pinned down the exact date by checking the dutifully filed reversions tests for system builds. Each time test values of the sine routine (and the rest of the library) had been printed out. Essentially the acceptance criterion was that the printout was the right thickness; the important point was that the tests ran to conclusion, not that they gave right answers. The trouble persisted through several deployed generations of the system.

McIlroy, Doug (2006). Trig routine risk: An Oldie. Risks Digest 24(49), December 2006.

If Bell Labs had arranged for a count of successes and a list of failures rather than a thick printout they (and their customers) would have have been in much better shape.