Parents keeping their children at home, tests leaked on the Department for Education website and talk of ever increasing stress amongst young children; this testing season has been more fraught than most. Add primary school teachers being uncertain about the standards expected, some standards are unknown with others given too late, and testing a multi-year curriculum which has only been taught for one year; unsurprisingly things are getting fraught.
It is easier to see how testing can get a bad name. Yet tests, in various forms, are used up and down the country, day in and day out, in every school with little fuss, anxiety or angst. Testing can be really useful, it’s part of all teachers’ everyday armoury. What children do and don’t know, what they can and can’t do, what I did and didn’t teach well is part of the process for responsive teaching within and across lessons. Add in children being required to retain and recall knowledge that, with increasing automaticity, they can use as the foundations for building greater and deeper knowledge; testing no longer seems such a bad thing. I don’t mind hard tests as long as they’re appropriate.
The difference between the two sets of tests is the stakes; high stakes accountability for schools and teachers changes everything. Taking people to the edge of the high stakes accountability cliff; the fear of whether they will plummet or fly brings the fright, fight or flight response to the fore. We are currently seeing too much of all three responses in our school system, none of which improve education.
Primary school testing, to a much greater degree than in secondary schools, is focussed on a specific part of the curriculum, English and Mathematics. Whilst these subjects are rightly seen as hugely important they don’t reflect the full value a primary school should add to a child’s education through other curriculum areas and the personal and social development of a child. In reality a one hour test only covers a small part of the English or Mathematics curriculum taught; it’s a sampling process.
The problem we’ve created within the testing system is we’ve over inflated the conclusions we can draw from a couple of one hour tests. The tests have become the proxy measures by which your worth as a school, through league tables and inspections, is judged; similarly for the teacher. Leaders under pressure end up doing daft things. The “you are only as good as your last set of SATs results” mentality can make or break schools and careers in an annual superficial cycle. It’s not that is doesn’t matter whether children learn the basics, it does, it is about whether we are taking a relatively discrete and limited piece of information and elevating it to a position where it is perceived as all knowing and ultimately all powerful.
Testing is an imperfect way of judging the knowledge of a child, capability of a teacher or value added by a school. A test result tells us how a child performed on that test, on that day; we need to see it much more within this context and not jump to sweeping conclusions which simply can’t be justified on the limitations of the evidence available. Sadly this flawed thinking pervades our system and profession; the sixty minute lesson observation or the book/planning scrutiny which leads to capability procedures. This isn’t a call for no accountability; we must be accountable, it is right we are. However, the high stakes accountability judgments being made on limited evidence, in terms of their reliability and hence the validity of the conclusions being drawn, is nothing short of madness. No wonder it feels such a mess.
It’s time to turn down the consequences, both positive and negative, of a few children getting a few questions right or wrong on a test sat in the first few weeks of May. If the accountability stakes for everyone weren’t as high, in some cases cataclysmically so, then more time and effort would be spent on teaching children. The concerns around reliability and validity are also mitigated when the potential consequences, of using the data, are reduced. In the same way as tests sample the curriculum maybe it’s time to sample performance across primary schools as a means of determining whether standards are going up or down nationally; accountability on its own can’t produce a World Class Education system in England; we need sufficient teachers and school leaders to do that. Therein lies the rub.
Acknowledgement: This post couldn’t have been written without listening to and reflecting on a presentation by Dr Becky Allen to the HeadsRoundtable Core Group Meeting on the 25th April 2016.