Modify Visibility in a Subclass to Allow Testing

In which I argue it might sometimes be useful to test private/protected methods, and demonstrate how to do it in a framework-independent way.

How do you test private/protected functions? The most common, and often correct answer is “Don’t!”. But sometimes it can be useful, especially when test-driving helper-methods. Example:

class Ohlson {
	int helper(); //We want to test this
	int compute() {
		int n = helper();

TEST(TestOhlson, helper_returns42) {
	Ohlson o;
	ASSERT_EQ(42, o.helper());

This will fail: error: ‘int Ohlson::helper()’ is protected. Many unittesting frameworks provide a way to work around this, like googletest’s FRIEND_TEST, but there is a way to get around this in normal C++, by subclassing to modify visibility.

In C++, a subclass can change the visibility of a derived function. This is not possible in Java or C# as far as I know, and to be honest it does sound somewhat dangerous. But C++ wasn’t made to keep you in a padded box with a helmet on, was it?

Here’s how you do it:

class OhlsonForTest : public Ohlson {
	using Ohlson::helper;

And voilà, helper() is now public and can be tested:

TEST(TestOhlson, helper_returns42) {
	OhlsonForTest o;
	ASSERT_EQ(42, o.helper());

This trick can be useful in some situations, but when you are done, see if you might refactor your way out of the problem instead.

And I would be extremely sceptical to do anything like this in production code!

By the way, this trick is often useful in combination with last weeks technique on Making a Derived Class to Allow Testing an Abstract Class.

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3 thoughts on “Modify Visibility in a Subclass to Allow Testing

  1. Good tip! This solves one of the problems I always seem to run into when writing tests.

    This also works for Java, you can always increase the visibility of subclasses (but not decrease).

  2. From a Facebook comment: “This is how we do it in C# as well”

    I get the impression that you really can’t, you can only approximate by overriding the method and delegating to the parent. But I don’t know C#, so any code examples would be great!

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