What place for testing in schools?

I was in the cohort of students who had no national testing at all in primary school, the first cohort to be introduced to the National Curriculum from KS3, and the cohort whose KS3 National Curriculum tests were boycotted. Consequently, I am probably also in the last generation of English school students to have found their GCSE exams to be the first external test of their lives. I can see, therefore, why it is perfectly reasonable for teachers to claim that we survived perfectly well before national testing.

I can see, too, the many arguments against high stakes testing for accountability, and even high stakes testing for assessment. I am not, though, in favour of the argument that says tests are automatically a bad thing, or that they automatically narrow the curriculum.

As a middle- and primary-school teacher, I have been guilty in the past (indeed, still am guilty) of using tests from a national bank of materials purely for the purpose of tracking progress towards some end-goal. It is still commonplace across the country for primary students to sit “optional” tests in Years 3, 4 and 5 (and often still Y7, 8 and 9) to make these tracking judgements. It is these tests that give tests a bad name – particularly when the same test is used each year and some teachers turn this to their advantage.

As with so many things, the problems of these tests are not the tests themselves but their uses. The need to gather data for tracking, and then desire to use that data for appraisal, and now even pay decisions, means that the focus of the tests is solely on the numerical outcomes, and far removed from the purposes of assessment. But we ought not let this flaw become an argument against testing, full stop.

Testing in its purest form ought to be means of ascertaining whether or not some given knowledge of skill has been learned. True, it’s not perfect, but then nor is a system which requires one professional to track the progress of 30+ students at at time. Problems arise when we use standardised tests across schools which are in no way adapted to the taught curriculum.

When carrying out mid-year assessments using optional QCA tests, it is inevitable that some of the content in the test will not have bee taught. What purpose then, these questions? True, it’s easier to photocopy an old exam to get an “accurate” result for tracking, but it tells us nothing about what has been learned. If testing is to be purposeful and meaningful then the content of those tests must be closely aligned to the content of the taught curriculum. That means teachers taking ownership of tests and assessment processes.

We hear plenty about places like Finland with very few standardised tests, but in these cases it is wrong to presume that there is little or no testing. Rather the testing is in the control of the teacher, linked to the curriculum and is genuinely meaningful in its feedback to both teacher and students. That doesn’t automatically mean a burden of time and organisation for teachers. Organisations like testbase provide questions organised by topic, and publishers produce tests that are perfectly usable in such circumstances. For example, the Rising Stars new curriculum assessment materials would fit the mastery approach to Maths and provide a simple snapshot of attainment for teachers and students directly linked to the content covered.

Testing absolutely has its place in schools, including with children in the primary school, but it must be an assessment of what has been taught and learned, not merely a tool to track progress on a numerical scale.

This blog is part of the June 2014 #blogsync project. Other blogs on the theme are available here


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4 thoughts on “What place for testing in schools?

  1. Teachling 22 June 2014 at 11:25 pm Reply

    Yes, your last paragraph sums it up nicely! They also should not be used to compare schools or judge teacher performance. And also shouldn’t be used to create the curriculum (‘My students are going to be tested on their persuasive writing- well I better make that the only genre I focus on for the next 6 months!!’ Aka. Teaching to the test). And you’re right, they give us great data; not only tracking what has been learned/acheived, but what the next steps are too (at a whole class level and individual level as well). Some people are very quick to be anti-testing, but there are some merits and it all depends – like any resource, really – on how they’re used.

  2. cazzypot2013 22 June 2014 at 11:31 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  3. Ian Lynch 22 June 2014 at 11:34 pm Reply

    The Computing Baseline and Progress Testing Project is designed to enable teachers to use national data from other schools to contextualise their own assessments. There are 614 members of the Baseline Google group mostly representing individual schools and that is growing daily. Some pupils have already taken the on-line exam and there are about 200 schools registered with more registering each day. This is not a government initiative so schools don’t have to share their data with anyone, they can use the anonymous pool though to see if their pupils are progressing as fast as all others. There are free facilities for formative progress tracking on the web site to complement the summative test. Its a free service for schools courtesy of NAACE and sponsored by TLM. NAACE is the National Association for the Advancement of Computer Education and TLm an Ofqual accredited awarding organisation.

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