Test Stress

So, testing.

Testing is good.

There you go. Simple enough. Testing is good.

Teachers test children every day. Every. Day. Parents test their children all the time. Generally speaking we improve at something because someone who knows more about it that we do finds out how much we know about it and then gives us the next step. Iterate that and we have what you call teaching and learning. Testing is an intrinsic, essential part of the process. It is not sufficient, but it is necessary.

There. Couldn’t be clearer.

*points in the other direction*

But……

….when the great and the good are talking on Radio 4 about testing they are not talking about this. They are talking about national tests. Tests which are not used to directly assess children for the purposes of teaching and learning. These tests are used for very different purposes. These are a summative assessment of the childs’ capability (more on that later) which is used as an accountability measure for the school and as a means to attempt to project into the future an assessment of the childs likely outcome based on statistics (or, as statisticians call it, voodoo).

They are talking about tests that children are over-prepared for. Where the preparation for the test becomes the rationale for being in school. Where tests are taken home, every night, for children to work through (and of course to be marked the next day). During this time the breadth of the curriculum shrinks down to near being just what is being tested. This is not for a short period of time. It is for months. And once the testing is done what follows is worse. All those things that weren’t covered whilst the test prep was in progress, they have to be covered now. And, of course, if they are having to do that, they do not have the time to spend on the things that were tested. But of course, that doesn’t matter now, in one sense, because the measures that the school will be held accountable for have been tested.

Now, of course, dear reader, I know that this doesn’t happen in your school. But it does happen.

I also find this interesting. The previous government removed modular exams and many opportunities for resits under the banner of ‘making more time for teaching and learning’. This government is looking to introduce more national tests for children, despite the fact that they will inevitably reduce time for teaching and learning. Some people seem to be keen supporters of both these moves.

More high stakes, accountability purposed testing will reduce time for teaching and learning and will distort the curriculum. The latter may well be a desired outcome by their promoters but I’m sure the former isn’t.

It could be suggested that organising teaching in this way (cramming, testing, reorganising curriculum) represents some form of moral failure on the part of those that do it. After all, surely a good school knows that not teaching Maths for a long period of time is detrimental to the child? I disagree (about the morality bit, not the detrimental bit). The accountability regime is set externally. The school exists within that accountability regime. Those that run the school have to consider every child in the school, not just those that have just finished their external tests. It is a balancing act. I know of no school that has been put into a category for changing their curriculum balance post SATs. I know of plenty that have for having falling SATs results. Question: Is it better for a child to be in an “Outstanding” school that changes its curriculum in the way I’ve suggested, or is it better to be in an “Inadequate” school that doesn’t? Well, that probably depends on which child you are, doesn’t it. It also probably depends on what period you are looking over. Just their period within that school, or for the whole of their schooling?

On the very narrow question “Is it wrong for a school to let some pupils go for long periods without a Maths lesson?” Well, yes, of course it bloody well is. And it does seem like a very simple choice to make. But in reality, with the sword of Ofsted hanging overhead, there is a different simplicity. There are (still, I’m afraid) hoops that have to be jumped through and schools are going to work out the best way they can to jump through the hardest and most visible hoops.

This is an expected and entirely foreseeable response to the accountability regime. It may well be the wrong response, but it is done with the best of intentions. And I do recognise that some will feel I am being overly generous in that assertion. I am prepared to accept that schools believe what they are doing is designed to ensure that their children, all of them, do the best they can with the resource they have. That I disagree with their approach does not mean I think there is any moral deficit on their part, more that their professional experience has led them into short-term rather than long-term thinking. My general contention is that short termism is the blight that holds back many schools.

And that is my real issue with the accountability measures used for schools, that they promote short-term thinking. They (along with the financial set-up) lock schools into an annual cycle which many seem unable to think beyond. To often the thinking is “How do we get Y6 to be better by May?” whereas it should be “how do we get Year 3 to be the best they can by July of Y6?” This kind of thinking is inhibited by both the accountability regime and by changes to the curriculum.

In conclusion, the issue isn’t whether or not to test children. Not testing is stupid. The issue is the purpose of the testing, and the intelligence of the accountability system behind it. We need a cleverer system.

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2 thoughts on “Test Stress

  1. Excellent piece – the balance between proper inspection and statistical inspection is becoming disadvantageous to many kids, but it’s probably much cheaper, and to an outsider, less immediately controversial.

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