When tests are toxic

Submitted by AWL on 1 May, 2019 - 12:29 Author: Patrick Yarker

On 15 April, NEU Conference narrowly passed a motion to boycott all high stakes summative testing in primary schools.

On 21 April, Education Secretary Damian Hinds responded in the Sunday Telegraph with a series of ill-informed claims.

Hinds began by likening assessment in primary schools to dental and eye tests. “If something matters, you check that it’s all OK”. Children’s learning matters very greatly, and it should be checked. Happily, this is what primary teachers do. Every single working day.

Intrinsic to the work of teaching is the assessment of learning. Such assessment is a sophisticated, complex, demanding activity requiring nuanced evaluation and skilled judgement, but perhaps that’s what Hinds meant by the word “check”.

Assessment is how teachers understand the way their teaching makes a difference for pupils. Teachers reflect on this understanding and use it to foster their pupils’ further learning. Assessment, undertaken continually and in a variety of ways, enables teachers to fulfil their chief responsibility, which is to pupils’ learning.

But testing is not a synonym for assessment. Testing is a sub-set of assessment. The testing which NEU members in primary schools may vote to boycott is of a particular sort: high-stakes and summative. Classically, it is embodied in SATs.

A regime of high stakes summative testing, such as Hinds defends, is educationally damaging for pupils and teachers in profound ways. (“Summative” means that the tests are supposed to be end-of-period measurement against a benchmark, as opposed to “formative” testing-as-you-go). Hence the boycott-call. But scrapping SATs, or Baseline Assessment, or “the phonics screening check”, won’t mean scrapping the assessment of learning.

Hinds asserted that primary tests exist to check up on the system and those who oversee it on behalf of the public. He stated: “These tests are tests of our education system, not our children”.

Who does Hinds think sits these tests? Who reads out loud the “unreal” nonsense words of the phonics check or spends twenty minutes with a teacher jumping through hoops for the Baseline Assessment?

In conjuring away the people who are actually put through England’s high-stakes testing regime, Hinds also erases their teachers. In his article, teachers are never mentioned. Nor is the activity of teaching. It’s as if Hinds can’t bring himself to look in the eye the people whose work he misrepresents, for example with his claim that an end to testing means an end to checking whether children can read, write and add up.

A well-attested truth of the high stakes summative testing regime is that it narrows the scope of the taught curriculum.

One form this narrowing takes is that increased classroom-time is devoted to coaching children for the tested activities, at the expense of what is not to be tested. So opportunities to engage with art, drama, PE or science decline.

In his article Hinds paraded more than once his sense of duty to the children of the country, yet seemed unconcerned at the way his “checking” mechanism impoverishes their educational experience.

Hinds did acknowledge that testing can cause stress, and that this isn’t acceptable. But where stakes are high, stress will be present. Since Hinds defends a high stakes regime which inevitably generates stress, all he can offer schools in mitigation is wishful thinking.

Primary schools, he wrote, should “guide children through tests without them feeling pressured”. He didn’t elaborate on how this might be done. He claimed that in many schools there is no “exam stress”, but he offered no evidence for this claim.

Hinds denied that test-results are important for any individual child, on the grounds that “no-one has ever been asked for their SATs results when they got a job interview... because they are not public exams”.

But SATs are public exams. They are designed and developed centrally by a public body, the Standards and Testing Agency. Maintained schools must proceed with them. They are marked by people recruited for the purpose, by a private company paid out of public funds, just as GCSEs are. Results are made public, school by school, just as they are for GCSEs.

The public nature of SATs is a significant element in making the tests high stakes.

Hinds erred again when, noting that SATs have been around for almost 30 years, he refused to “countenance returning to a world where Government had no effective way of knowing how well our children were being taught”. The existence of Ofsted, and before that (back to 1837) of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Schools, must have slipped his mind.

In closing, Hinds pointed out that test results reveal “the improvement over the last few years in children’s reading”, and “the declining gap” (presumably in tested attainment) between richer and poorer children. Here Hinds finally came clean. He wanted to get political credit for some of the outcomes of the high stakes summative testing regime in primary schools, while denying or ignoring the other results.

It’s a regime whose nature, impact, workings and consequences, so his Sunday Telegraph article suggested, he neither understands not cares to learn.

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