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Tests are Counter-Productive (shock?)

October 23rd, 2007


Channel 4 News has recently run a major report about how low-achievers are being left behind in the school system.

It is encouraging that the media is starting to pick up on the reality that testing and league tables helps only the government and not the students. As far as I am concerned, this is patently obvious for the majority of teachers in schools. The testing regime was a top-down initiative which never really had the students’ best interests at heart.

In the report, Mary Hilton of Cambridge University argued that in their last year of primary schools, children in England are “trained and drilled for the tests and its disastrous”. Ask any parent whether they would prefer their child to experience motivating and engaging ideas in classrooms or test revision, and they would all want the engaging ideas… that is unless they had become caught up in a system whereby they worry that their child will be disadvantaged in some way by not being drilled for the test.

This is a problem: testing regimes bootstrap themselves; by introducing a mandatory testing regime, everybody must be seen to perform at least at their level of expectation within that regime, but everyone will strive to perform better. Therefore increasingly attention will be diverted towards the regime. More and more people spend more and more time focussing on the test rather than on what the test was introducted to test.

SATS help the government because they make measurable the achievements of schools. One ought to have reason to pause at this idea. What exactly has been measured?

The improvement that any student achieves while at school is due to a combination of three factors: the speed of their natural development, the nourishment (in every sense) and education that their parents provide, and the education that the school provides. At the very best measuring students’ academic performances does not measure what the school adds to the students. The clearest example of this is that in comfortable middle class areas where, other things being equal, parents tend to have more time and more knowledge about how to educate their children, schools perform better than in deprived areas. In what sense can SATs be thought to be comparing the two schools’ performances by comparing their SATs results? Value Added measurements attempt to get around that problem, but it is not really clear that they do.

Do tests actually measure understanding? At their most sophisticated, testing measures understanding by asking questions which catch students off guard or are unusual in some way. Then the student must adapt using what they know to this new scenario. There is a good reason why at around 16-18, as learners begin to move into an abstract sphere of understanding, that the first meaningful tests that students sit occur in cultures around the world. Before then, tests are likely not to measure understanding.

Driven by the desire for all testing to be standardised and comparable, tests have increasingly become tests of memorisation. Testing 11 year olds will inevitably test learnable skills not creative understanding. Thus, SAT questions are familiar and routine. Performance in answering routine questions can be improved through drill. It is not unreasonable to argue that one of the things tests actually measure is the amount that a child has been drilled for the test.

What is worse, Channel 4 News reports that experts argue that the testing regime is actually particularly bad for lower achievers at school. Not only are they counter-productive, they are particularly counter-productive for students at the bottom of the pile. One can only hope that the clamour to overhaul this current system will grow and grow.

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