Testing Times

In Debates and Polemics by Alex Quigley3 Comments

We live in testing times. As a parent of two young primary age children, and a secondary school teacher, I have a great interest in the debate around testing and assessment. The primary debate is raging! Fronted adverbials and synthetic phonics are seemingly enough to spark bar-room brawls on social media walls. Pretty much every assessment from Early Years to Key Stage 2 SATS is the target of ire of loathing at the moment and the government are summarily accused of stealing away the childhood of our young children.

The primary assessment regime, from the baseline testing debacle, to the dropping of the KS1 SPaG test, to the mystery at attended the new KS2 scaled scores, is in seeming disarray. So why is it all gone so badly wrong? Hurried implementation, weak consultation, along with the absence of piloting and talking to teaching experts, has seemingly flawed some of these assessments.

Rather controversially to many, I think tests can be useful tools for learning and valuable for teachers. Regular formative testing can be useful and a simple part of what remains an enriching curriculum diet. And yet, I certainly recognise the legion of problems that primary school teachers and parents describe. The glaring issue is that when student assessment becomes a proxy for school accountability, everything becomes distorted and childrens’ learning invariably suffers. As Dylan Wiliam sagely states in the TES just this week,

” Diagnostic assessments – such as as a test of phonemic awareness – can be useful indications of what children can and cannot do. But when the same assessment is used to draw conclusions about the quality of education children have received up to that point, then there is pressure to make sure the students pass the test, robbing the test of its usefulness as a guide to the child’s learning needs.”

Why does this happen? Well, the government have two levers to enact change in school: tests and accountability measures. When they really want things to change they deploy them both at once. This is what primary schools have been facing head-on and at full speed lately. Understandably, primary schools are frightened of the recriminations that attend failure in such high stakes tests.

Whilst schools are blameless regarding the initiation or design of such tests, we can determine how we choose to implement them and I think it is important for us to recognise our power as teachers.

I have two beautiful young children. My eldest, who has undertaken the phonics check, will sit her KS1 SATs (though not the SPaG element of course) in the coming weeks. From my daughter’s perspective, she never knew she had a phonics check. Last year, she was taught brilliantly and the check was little more than, well, a check. We were duly informed and there was little to no stress, nor a distortion of how she learnt and enjoyed school. She loved her teacher!

Very soon she will do some ‘special work’ – that work being her KS1 SATs. She is completely oblivious to this fact and she has been enjoying school a great deal – more interested in a Blue Peter story competition than any test. Her teachers may be stressed, I don’t know, but they are doing a great job of masking it to my daughter if they are.

Hope for better

And yet, given my happy experience, I hear stories of schools acting very differently in the face of such pressures. From a family member, I know of an equivalent year 2 girl who has received multiple SATs papers for homework, with learning being distorted to fuel a mass of test practice and preparation. You can predict the madness that attends older children sitting the KS2 SATs in the selfsame school.

I understand the pressures that attend high stakes tests, and I hope for better dialogue with teachers from policy makers over the assessment regime in the near future, but we needn’t distort what happens in the classroom and supplant great teaching with a misguided obsession with high stakes assessment.

In my anecdotal tale it is clear that schools can react in different ways to these testing times. Whilst we can seldom determine national political policy (we can of course voice our displeasure and lobby for better alternatives), we can control how our children experience such tests. It is clear that teachers and school leaders face a different test in the face of assessment and high stakes accountability, but we have the power to pass that test with the flying colours that we choose.

Comments

  1. Hi Alex,

    You’ve just kindly alerted me that you lost my original comment on transference to your new blog. I’m hoping by alerting me you’d be happy for me to re-post the gist of my original comment:

    Basically, then, I endeavoured to get to the real heart of the issue of ‘testing’.

    First of all, your daughter’s experience illustrates that the Year One phonics screening check is not this dreadful, anti-children test – but actually the issue is about the teachers’ and schools’ approach to undertaking that test.

    This suggests that those children who are upset be the check, and even consider it to be ‘a test’, have been mishandled by the teachers and/or the parents. It is not the advent of the check that is the issue, but the professional way – or lack thereof – of handling the check.

    Then, if I recall correctly, I think I tried to make a point of differentiating between the potential helpfulness of national objective ‘snapshot’ testing – which should, and does, inform the teaching profession of teaching effectiveness – especially when taking into consideration ‘like’ schools.

    I suggest that teachers should want to be advantaged by that bigger picture – it’s an important part of professional development and should be seen thus. Sadly, even the DfE couches the Year One phonics screening check more about helping teachers in their analysis of their pupils’ phonics capability as individuals rather than highlighting its most important aspect – that teachers DO get to know about their teaching effectiveness compared to others.

    This in itself demonstrates that whilst political figures continue to strive for higher standards and ratchet up (apparently) the levels of difficulty of assessments and exams, the purpose of national tests is conflated leaving teachers feeling defensive and pressurised.

    It is extremely important, however, that we do obtain a picture of teaching effectiveness, and national standards, in the field of literacy and maths – so why not highlight that, admit it, and welcome it.

    We have already had a culture of ‘learning from other schools’ or ‘learning collaboratively’ for years – so why the disconnect when it comes to the couching of the national tests such as the Year One phonics screening check, and the Y2 and Y6 national assessments/tests?

    The disaster is the pressure upon teachers, children and parents alike – without the necessary conversations of ‘fit-for-purposeness’ of national assessment compared to within school assessment.

    Within schools, we need both formative and summative assessment. We need the minutiae and the schools’ own snapshots in the foundational subjects for the individual pupils.

    Nationally, we surely just need the overall picture – and this should be the emphasis – purely for being informed for our professional development.

    Any teacher should want to know how they are doing – but without the high stakes pressure.

    Interestingly, however, teachers were often surprised by their findings in the Year One phonics screening check. Some, for example, found their ‘better readers’ did not read the nonsense words accurately – they said the children were ‘trying to make sense’ of the words. What this lays bear possibly is the lack of shared professional knowledge and understanding about reading instruction. No ‘better readers’ should have read the nonsense words inaccurately. This could be a sign of the persistence of multi-cueing reading strategies (which involve a lot of promoted ‘guessing’ words in reading material which leads to a reading reflex amounting to guessing and inaccuracy). A body of research has discredited multi-cueing reading strategies – but it looks like most early years and infant teachers – and intervention programmes such as Reading Recovery – persist with them.

    This finding could have been used as a national professional development point if anyone with any degree of deep understanding could have led the way – but, for example, teachers’ union leaders appear to be clueless when it comes to the research findings of reading instruction. However, perhaps I digress too much into my own field.

    This leaves leading educational bloggers to lead the way. Without doubt there are individuals who have drawn the attention of Nick Gibb to various issues – and I’m hoping that with the interest in Tom Bennett’s researchEd, for example, that there will be more of a grass roots move towards unpicking the real issues around national assessment – that it should be for ‘snapshots’ of the bigger picture – and it is up to individual schools to dig deep for the analysis and provision of their pupils moving forwards.

    Alex, I’m not sure how close this is to my original posting – but I hope it’s pretty much the same points I’ve made here (again).

    Best wishes,

    Debbie

  2. Darn – I’ve done the bear/bare mistake yet again. That’s twice in a couple of days. How embarrassing. LOL! And me in the field of spelling!

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