The National Education Union has called for a boycott of high stakes summative testing in primary schools. Good! These tests serve no educational purpose. In fact, they damage education. Patrick Yarker explains why.
Summative high stakes tests make it impossible for teachers not to narrow the content of the curriculum for pupils facing the tests. Teaching-to-the-test, or test-readying, replaces ordinary productive teaching and learning for weeks at a time. Pupils study only material expected to appear in the tests. Teachers make increased use of teaching-methods which leave no room for pupils to have their say or choose how work might be accomplished. This saps everyone's motivation.
The tests unhelpfully constrain how pupils can work and think. Success at the tests requires pupils to answer in ways which conform to narrowly-drawn assessment criteria. On the whole, the tests are designed to elicit very short responses. So they tend to reward shallower thinking and the presentation of compartmentalised bits of knowledge, at the expense of grounded understanding, connected awareness, and originality of mind.
Educate and assess the whole child
Assessment is intrinsic to the work of teaching. Teachers assess their pupils' learning continually in many ways, including by testing. Informed by daily experience with the pupil, and by observation and reflection, a teacher's assessment of a pupil's learning at the end of a course will be multi-faceted and nuanced. Educationally-speaking, this is far more valuable than the information contained in a stand-alone summative test score.
And yet it is this score which carries weight in a system increasingly prone to what has been called 'datafication'. Datafication assumes anyone's educational development proceeds in a simply linear way (rather than, say, being complexly recursive). It also assumes such development is precisely trackable by periodic standardised measurement. Scores generated by such measurements are held to reveal something necessary to know about the pupil, while what is not measured is rendered much less significant, or overlooked entirely. As a result, thinking about the pupil 'in the round' is made more difficult. It becomes harder to educate 'the whole child'. The work of teaching is diminished.
The Education Secretary recently claimed that summative high stakes tests are not intended to check up on pupils. But a pupil receives his or her test score as a judgement on the self. The score shapes how pupils perceive themselves as learners. Pupils are further encouraged in this by the pervasive discourse of 'ability', which prompts the labelling of each individual as a certain kind of pupil, with consequences for how that pupil is responded to in school. Test-scores are carried forward within the school system, shaping the ways in which pupils are regarded, grouped and taught.
A degree of nervousness on the part of pupils may be inevitable in the face of any test, and not necessarily something which harms. But for a proportion, undertaking high stakes summative tests inflicts more anxiety than can be considered acceptable. Some pupils become very distressed. Since the tests do them no good educationally, this is unconscionable.
Responsibility and accountability
A system of high stakes summative testing exerts pressure on schools in the name of public accountability. A school's failure to meet externally-imposed attainment targets or maintain results can have grave consequences for the institution. In such circumstances, where accountability is felt as punitive, attempts may be made to 'game' the system. This is one way in which the testing system erodes teaching as a moral practice. It coerces teachers to act against deeply-held educational principles, for example by making them teach-to-the-test. In a small number of cases, it prompts teachers to act fraudulently in respect of the testing-process.
It is right that a publicly-maintained education service be accountable. But high stakes summative testing is the wrong mechanism for this. The tests provide so reductive and partial a picture of what a school does, and distort the educational process so profoundly, that another basis must be devised on which schools can be held to account.
The prime responsibility of teachers is to their pupils' learning. Not to policy which sidelines this responsibility in favour of checking up on the system, or compiling performance league tables, or raising narrowly-defined attainment scores. Recognising this, teachers are right to call for an end to the current system of high stakes summative testing in primary schools. Profound issues are in play to do with the purpose and nature of pupil assessment and how best to make the maintained school system accountable. Current policy in these areas must be re-thought, and changed. Back the NEU boycott call!
A statement couched in terms similar to this article is attracting support from academics. It will be sent to the Education Secretary, and copied to the NEU. Further details from: P.Yarker@uea.ac.uk