A healthy approach to testing

Testing in education has a bad name.  Nancie Atwell, the ‘world’s best teacher’ used the platform provided by her recent award to bemoan the testing culture that she feels now dominates our school system:  “[Test scores] are all that counts right now. It’s all data analysis, metrics and accountability. It’s a business model that has no business being applied to the craft of teaching or the science of learning.”

In England, testing is often seen as being at odds with the true purpose of schooling.  Friends of mine in both the primary and secondary sector have left the profession, or moved into the independent sector, to escape the grip that testing holds over state education.

Clearly there is more to education than testing but it frustrates me that testing children is associated with a mean-spirited, heartless, bureaucratic and elitist approach to education.  At a classroom level we need testing to reveal gaps in understanding which can then be addressed.   At a national level we need testing to ensure that all children have a decent chance of success.  Testing might reveal that our teaching hasn’t hit the mark, and it might tell us some ugly truths about the iniquity of our society and how this plays out in the classroom, but to blame the test is to shoot the messenger.  We know that people on lower incomes suffer from lower life expectancy, worse health, and higher levels of crime – ever their sleep isn’t as good as wealthier people – but we don’t blame the tests, surveys and reports that reveal these awkward truths.  On the contrary, these findings help us to understand these deficits and disparities so that we can tackle them at their root.

So what would a healthy approach to testing look like?

Clearly some schools have lost site of the fact that the primary purpose of testing and assessment is to find out if the students learnt what they were taught, and to adjust future teaching accordingly.  For many teachers, testing has become synonymous with high stakes accountability, and teachers have become deskilled when it comes to identifying what students can and cannot do.  Some school leaders seem to prefer the false security of spreadsheet progress, rather than the messy reality of real progression in the classroom. The demise of National Curriculum levels offers a chance to restore testing to its true purpose – we need to seize it by re-skilling our teachers to test for understanding, rather than test for grading.

We hear a lot about the stress of testing, but we overlook the steps that schools can take to cushion this stress by embedding testing within a culture of transparency and support.  This involves being honest. We shouldn’t pretend that every test students sit will affect their future life chances, but we also shouldn’t pretend that getting 50% on a maths test deserves equal credit as 70%.  Like in a job interview, students should be encouraged to present the very best version of themselves when they sit a test, knowing that the results of the test will enable their teachers to direct their support accordingly.   When I taught lower-attaining students I was struck by the fact that their ‘game-management’ of tests was so poor.  Higher-attaining students were more test-savvy, understanding the importance of managing time, providing full answers and completing the paper.

I also think we are often guilty of low expectations when we talk about the stress that testing places on young people.  Compared to the stress of rowdy corridors, or disruptive classrooms (see this great blog from Katie Ashford), tests are manageable for young people, and any lingering stress can be mitigated by a culture of love and support which recognises that there’s more to education, and to life, than passing tests.  The way we teach can also ease the pressure of testing.   Pressure bites when we feel under-prepared and out of control.  Careful teaching, in which students gradually accumulate knowledge, while teachers gradually roll back their support, enables young people to approach tests and exams with confidence.   Starting the year by giving all pupils clear course guides, containing exam information and all the required knowledge, is another way to demystify testing for our students.

A healthy approach to testing also involves the recognition that the best way of enabling a student to pass an exam in Y11 isn’t to give them a replica of that exam in Y7, but rather to build the foundational knowledge that will enable them to properly understand that subject, and therefore to do well in any exam in that subject (Andy Tharby calls this the ‘as the crow flies’ error).  Martin Robinson has noted the opportunity offered by 2-year linear A Levels to build in students a richer appreciation of their subjects rather than to expect exam success from day 1 (LINK HERE).

School leaders have a critical role to play in this.  I am reminded of the phrase ‘autopsies without blame’ (Jim Collins) which captures the approach that great headteachers take if the exam results of a teacher or a department in their school fail to meet expectations.  It’s an indictment of leadership and management systems if it takes exam results to reveal poor teaching.  School leaders must create a culture of “we’re all in this together”.  To expect flawless exam results in all areas is to misunderstand the nature of assessment.

A friend of mine who works in primary lost faith in her school, and in the system, when her headteacher asked teachers to adjust baseline test results downwards as the figures they were presenting would make it difficult for the school to show the required progress further up the school.  It’s no wonder many teachers see testing as something done to them, and something separate to their true job of educating young people.

School leaders also need to be explicit to teachers about the level of support that they are expected to give to students.  Teachers of vocational subjects and courses with controlled assessments are particularly vulnerable to pressure to over-support young people.  Schools need to spell out the limits to this support and build a culture which recognises that getting children themselves to work harder for their exams is a far better strategy in the long run than relentlessly demanding more of their teachers.

It’s a shame when the ‘world’s best teacher’ is so scathing towards testing – something which in my view is fundamental to the craft of teaching.  I hope that current reforms to exams and assessment in England provide a chance to restore testing to its rightful place.