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helper testing using ActionView::TestCase

Testing testing testing. We test our models, our controllers, and the integration between them. But how often do we pay attention to helpers? Not very often, if the test coverage of my current project’s helpers is any indicator.

There are a few tools out there for testing your controllers. There’s a plugin called helper_test. ZenTest also provides Test::Rails::HelperTestCase.

There’s an even better way, and it’s included with Rails itself since at least 2.1: ActionView::TestCase. The name might be misleading, but it’s intended for testing view helpers. It also is a kind of underdocumented.

You can skip ahead to the summary if you want the dirty details.

Your very first helper test

The Rails test layout doesn’t have an obvious place to put helper tests. I’ll take a cue from helper_test, and say to put them in test/unit/helpers. That way, they will be run by rake test:units.

The skeleton test

Let’s start out with testing ApplicationController, in test/unit/helper/application_helper_test.rb:

require File.dirname(__FILE__) + '/../../test_helper'
require 'action_view/test_case'
class ApplicationHelperTest < ActionView::TestCase
  def test_nothing
    assert true

Some notes:

  • We do a typical require of test/test_helper.rb
  • I’m requiring ‘action_view/test_case’, because without it, we see an error like uninitialized constant ActionView::TestCase (NameError). I feel like ActiveSupport should find this automatically, but it isn’t. You can also toss this in test/test_helper.rb.
  • Inherit ActionView::TestCase
  • Placeholder test

What to test

I want to add a helper for displaying a navigation tab. It will just go to index of a controller you specify. The link should have the ‘current’ class if you’re rendering from controller you are making a tab for.

Based on that, we have two contexts to test:

  • Making a tab for the current controller
  • Making a tab for another controller

Test it first

You’d always be using the helper from a specific controller, so we’ll have a parent context of being in a controller, like EventsController.

Now that we have some context, and some specifications, let’s translate this into a Shoulda’s terminology.

context "creating a tab for 'events'" do
  setup do
    @tab = tab_for('events')

  should "list item with a link to events with 'current' class" do
    assert_dom_equal '<li><a href="/events" class="current">Events</a></li>', @tab

context "creating a tab for 'projects'" do
  setup do
    @tab = tab_for('projects')

  should "list item with a link to projects without 'current' class" do
    assert_dom_equal '<li><a href="/projects">Projects</a></li>', @tab

The parent context doesn’t do anything yet, because we don’t know any implementation details about how it’s going to determine the current controller. assert_dom_equal, as the name implies, checks that the DOM of the given strings are equivalent. Presumably, this takes care of whitespace, casing, etc.

Let’s run it the first time… RED, because we don’t have any implementation.

First pass at implementing it

Let’s try a first implementation:

module ApplicationHelper
  def tab_for(name)
    url = send("#{name.downcase}_path")
    content_tag :li do
      link_to(name.capitalize, url)

Briefly put:

  • We’re generate a url. This presumes that the there’s a path defined like events_path, as if by map.resource :events.
  • Make a <li>
  • Make a link to the URL we just generated

Let’s see how this fares… some GREEN, but still RED. Creating a tab for another controller passes, but creating a tab for the current controller fails. That’s because we never determine if we’re on on the current controller. How are we going to do that? Here’s some fun facts towards enlightenment:

  • Helpers are included in the view.
  • The view exposes controller, which is the rendering controller
  • ActionController::Base exposes controller_name, which has a stringified name of the controller, ie ‘events’ for EventsController.

I want to check the value of controller.controller_name. We can stub controller to return an actual EventsController using mocha:

context "When on the events controller" do
  setup do
  # ...

And… we have the same failures. No wonder, because we didn’t change the implementation. Now to give it another try:

def tab_for(name)
  url = send("#{name.downcase}_path")
  content_tag :li do
    attributes = {}
    attributes[:class] = 'current' if controller.controller_name == name
    link_to(name.capitalize, url, attributes)

Wait for it, wait for it… GREEN!


I believe that wraps things up. Let’s just do a quick recap:

  • Stash tests in test/unit/helpers
  • Name your tests like your helper, ie ApplicationHelperTest for ApplicationHelper
  • Inherit from ActionView::TestCase
  • require 'action_view/test_helper' somewhere, probably in test/test_helper.rb
  • Your helper will be included into your test, so you can just use its methods
  • If you need to touch stuff that would normally be included in the view, stub it out
  • Use assert_dom_equals to test the output. Alternative, you might use assert_equal or assert_match


Testing helpers this way is not quite bullet proof though. While coding this up, I encountered a few tough errors that spit out a stack trace because of a nil value somewhere down in the Rails stack. For, I tried using url_for instead of using the named routes, and ActionView::TestCase didn’t take too kindly to that.

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