Testing, Testing: The devil is in the delivery.

One Saturday afternoon during the spring of this year, I had just served up tea for my two kids. Without warning, the eldest, then aged six, began to weep uncontrollably into her pasta. I was shocked and very concerned. When I finally managed to persuade her to tell me what was the matter it transpired that she was worried about her upcoming SATS test on Monday. It turned out that her teacher had told the students that they were expected to produce their best work and that if they didn’t, or if they talked during the test, they would have their papers torn up in front of them.

As you can imagine, this made me really angry. At the time I tweeted about what a travesty it was that my daughter should be suffering like this at her age, worrying about tests when she should be enjoying herself.

But I now realise that it isn’t the testing that I have an issue with; it’s the way the tests are sold.

There has been a lot of debate and discussion this week on the necessity of testing after Nicky Morgan’s declaration that she wants to reinstate externally standardised tests at various points in a child’s school life. Much of the debate has been over whether teacher-assessed tests are as reliable as externally standardised tests; to me this is a nonsensical argument. I know that I have to constantly check the summative levels I give to my students’ work when I’m assessing it because  I personally know the students, and therefore, before I’ve even marked the work, I have formed a prejudiced expectation of what that child will achieve.

However, I also mark GCSE English Language for AQA, and so I am quite confident that the same prejudice doesn’t apply when marking work for students I don’t know: I may look at the handwriting and form some assumptions (a circle or love heart used to dot an “i” rarely implies anything above a “D”), but I’m pretty sure that my marking for the exam board carries way less bias than when I mark the work of students I know. There is no question that externally standardised tests are more objective.

So then the argument is whether or not we should test young children at all. Personally, I have no problem with testing – it gives teachers a reasonably objective snapshot of where a child is at a given point in time and provides useful data for both the child and school to use in various ways (professional conversations, reporting to parents, planning for progress etc.).  I have no qualms with my children, aged 5 and 7 being tested. But if they are to be tested then what I insist on is that the teachers don’t make a big deal out of it. We all know that the pressure is on the schools and the teachers to get the best results possible, but we are the professionals who are paid to take the pressure, not pass that pressure on to the kids who have no choice about being in that system. We teachers do have a choice, and we are the ones who should find strategies to ensure the pressure we are feeling is dealt with by us, professionally, and not passed on for these vulnerable, developing young minds to try and cope with. All the talk of high stakes and accountability needs to stay in the staffroom, not be foisted onto the children.

To my mind, (externally) test all you want. Just don’t use it to frighten the children.

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About Andrew Warner

Mostly English teacher, AHT (T&L/literacy/CPD) & bibliophile. Irregular examiner, MTBer, armchair anthropologist & bassist. Fascinated by language & behaviour.

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