in Education

What would a post-test era look like for our schools?

Multiple-choice

“[I]s anyone surprised that a huge swath of our population can’t speak intelligently about the larger issues that face us? No doubt, the financial mess we’re in and climate change and the Middle East and the rest are complex, fast changing issues that can be difficult for anyone to keep up with. (I’m no exception.) But again, have our schools really been cultivating the learning dispositions needed to grapple with those topics as they evolve? We give a lot of lip service to problem solving and critical thinking and the like, but I’m not convinced that those and other really important skills and literacies are showing up meaningfully in more than 10% of classrooms in this country because in large measure, they’re not on the test. It’s about content and knowledge, not learning.” (Will Richardson)

Introduction

My son, Ben, is four years old. He’s just finished his first year in school nursery and will move up to Reception class in September. For international readers, it’s important to bear in mind that in England children do not have to go to school until they are five years old – we could have chosen to enrol him in January 2012. He’s very much enjoyed wearing his school uniform, meeting new people and learning new things. Ben loves going to school.

But.

There’s two classes next year into which Ben and his friends are to be divided. Both are Reception/Year 1 mixed. To cut a long story short, the rumour went around the parents at the school gate that one was a ‘more able’ class and one a ‘lower ability’ class (which, from a teacher’s perspective is ridiculous: you’d just split them into Reception and Year 1). In addition, my neice who has just finished Reception (in a different school) has just been scored at 104 out of 117. For what, you may ask? Exactly. But we’re all proud of her anyway.

The Perils of Testing

The amount of testing that children in my family will undertake during their educational career is even more than my wife and I had to undertake when we were at school. And that was more than enough. Testing is a form of competition which seems to be the dominant discourse in society. This saddens me. In the quotation from Will Richardson above he’s concerned that teachers focus unduly on the test. As a former teacher who attempted to rebel against such a system I can confirm that, at the end of the day, it’s a choice between selling-out (and teaching to the test) or quitting. My wife, a Primary school teacher, and I have both been asked several times in our careers to change teacher assessments because they didn’t demonstrate linear progress when plotted on a graph. That’s just not acceptable; if children’s progress is to be charted it should be done properly.

A data-driven culture in schools would be fine if the numbers in a spreadsheet mattered less than the individual child, but I’m not sure that they do. As I explained in Assessment in UK schools: a convenient hypocrisy? these numbers stay with, and label children, throughout their educational career. It’s performativity at its worst: to be successful children have to learn how to ‘do school’ rather than learn those things which will help them function in society.

The Solution?

When my son Ben stops enjoying doing something he moves onto something else. And that’s fine by me – although I’m fairly hot on discipline, I work with his interests and attention span. Whilst I’m confident that this has been the case this year whilst he’s been in school nursery, I’m not so sure it will continue throughout his educational career. Unless our family manage to instil in him a growth mindset he’s likely to equate test results with some kind of ‘inate ability’. That’s dangerous territory.

What happens when children start demonstrating what Carol Dweck calls ‘fixed’ mindsets? If they’re successful they choose the easy option to prove their ‘intelligence’. If they’re not so successful they’re liable to disengage with schooling. For some, this involves staring out the window, for others poor behaviour, and for yet others voting with their feet. According to The Guardian truancy is on the rise – and it’s increasing even in Primary schools.

I think we need to step back and take stock. As with Purpos/ed (asking what is the purpose of education?) we need to ask what is the purpose of assessment? Once we understand that perhaps we’ll be able to decide whether we care about PISA, whether high-stakes testing does more harm to our society than good, and whether what we’re currently doing is conducive to developing growth mindsets in young people.

Perhaps a good place to start would be investing in meaningful continuing professional development for teachers and trusting their judgements? Now there’s an idea.

A Post-test school

What would an education system look like that had moved beyond testing? Perhaps we should look at Finland. According to this article, the Fins manage to do very well without high-stakes testing:

There is no domestic testing except a very quiet auditing program to test demographic samples of kids; not for accountability, not for public consumption, and not for comparison across schools. The fascinating thing is that because they have created such a high level of professionalism, they can trust their teachers. Their motto is “Trust Through Professionalism.” The difference between the highest performing school in Finland and the lowest performing school in Finland is less than four percent, and that’s without any testing at all.

I believe a post-test school would be collaborative instead of competitive. It would be project-driven. The staff would be happy and the children relaxed. Truancy would be minimal.

But how, I hear you ask, would universities and employers decide who to employ? How would we identify talent?

Again, I think we need to step back and look at the wider picture and challenge the paucity of our collective imagination. It baffles me why we abstract away from personality and interests to represent ourselves on paper in black and white, sending an application to persons unknown at an educational institution or organization we barely know. Far better would be to change the whole system, to predicate it upon relationships and much richer, informative and – yes – passionate representations of ourselves. Why not have such institutions and businesses approaching young people and job hunters rather than the other way around?

Conclusion

I don’t know of anyone who knows about education in the UK who thinks that the status quo is desirable or tenable. Everyone is dissatisfied and the elephant in the room is our assessment regime. Let’s do something about it. Let’s kick up a fuss. Let’s tell the world that whilst we’ve got qualifications of which we may be proud, they’re not necessarily relevant or desirable for our children. And while we’re at it, let’s get back to human relationships rather than children-as-spreadsheets.

Who’s with me?

Image CC BY-NC-SA COCOEN daily photos

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16 Comments

  1. Doug, not only is there the hierarchy of the educational pyramid to deal with; (although some may pay lip service), there are many business and professional interests  including exam boards,content providers, publishers, educational suppliers, (including ICT products and services), who have a direct interest in maintaining the status quo.   It will be along haul, so its important folk share this post as widely as possible in order to counteract the inertia evident in much of the current educational discourse

  2. Totally agree with you, but with a Govt seemingly intent on reinventing Victorian Education it’s going to be a while before anyone listens.

    We do have non examination courses such as BTEC and OCR Nationals but these have just been given their death sentences. The problem here is not the courses are weak, but that the arrival of league tables put so much pressure on Schools to deliver results that these type of courses became a too tempting target to manipulate.

    I was involved in pilot GNVQ business courses in the 90s in a very challenging school in Tilbury. Properly taught and delivered, the result was that Friday afternoons became a hive of activity and learning as a mostly lower ability group of 31 kids explored and found out about business and Enterprise. Roll on a few years and we had the utter travesty of Thomas Telfords GNVQ ICT course, taught at the lowest possible level and targeted at a C equivalent which put them at the top of the League Tables and effectively destroyed vocational courses and the type of engaging teaching you advocate. The nadir was the now deceased Diplomas of Ed Balls.

    With the obsession on testing not education, I can’t see any obvious way other than qualifications that encourage creativity nor mere recall.

    • I taught the OCR Nationals ICT course and, whilst it wasn’t the best, at least it allowed for self-directed learning and a different kind of classroom atmosphere. It’s a real shame that we’ve got an Education minister who believes in Victorian education and the concomitant outdated assessment regime. We need to speak up before our children’s lives are damaged.

  3. V. well written Doug but then I expect nothing less ;). And the comments particularly Theos on the big business not going to let such a shift happen so lightly really do bring the reality of realising this concept home. Plus your comments on the OCR Nats are really interesting. I have often said that the thinking behind them was so right but the application and pressure from schools to use them for upping points easily, was so wrong.
    Nevertheless, as much as I support you on this and would love to be a part of such a campaign to change education, I am sat here trying to rack my brains for when in modern times, such as change has been forced especially as Theo pointed out, big bucks is involved. In other words, are we banging our heads against a brick wall? I would love to hear how you think such a view can be overcome.

    • Thanks Nick. :-)

      I think one way we can ‘fight the power’ is to use their tools against them. For example, after a conversation with Eylan Ezekiel recently, it struck me that the Free School programme not only allows middle-class parents to ‘opt-out’ but educators to propose fairly radical alternatives.

      Perhaps we could try that?

      • Hmm, now that’s interesting. I think that’s the first positive view I have heard on free schools. Thinking on those lines maybe academies and the mammoth power base I can forsee some of these building may also be a channel. However, I suppose such mega-school businesses may be more averse to radical alternatives

  4. I agree Doug, I think the mistake many make is automatically equating Free Schools with Gove’s world view. This doesn’t have to be the case.  Perhaps he has unwittingly, (or otherwise), provided some opportunities for developing new models. Incidentally the first free school I heard of was run by A S Neill  s in the 60′s, but that was a long time ago.

  5. In the role I’ve just left, I ended up trawling through the school’s assessment data for the head, who freely admitted she wasn’t a data person. What I saw was an incredibly positive picture – one that didn’t fit with my experiences of the school (I spent four and a half years there, so knew the place and children well). I looked at average sublevel progress in reading, writing and mathematics, and noted that in almost all cases, over 300+ children, the cohorts averaged 2 sublevels progress. In some cases it was 1.98, in other 2.11. But it was very positive, very ‘average’. This was regardless of cohorts who were notoriously labelled poor, or who we knew weren’t doing as well as they potentially could do. These appear in all schools, and I’m sure I’m not being controversial in saying so.

    What this highlighted to me was something I had long suspected. The majority of teachers in our school were making the children fit the expectations we had of them, regardless of what they had achieved – in other words, exactly what you have said.

    Moving from this, after revealing the findings to the staff, we then said that it didn’t matter about children making 2 sublevels progress this year. We were more concerned that teachers were making accurate and honest assessments – and if that meant moving a child down a sublevel or two, so be it. What we had was utterly worthless and it needed a line drawing under it. Hopefully, I have left that school with a renewed sense of assessment. Like you say, the child is more important than the statistics – a message that is lost in many schools I fear.

    • Thanks Thomas, that’s a useful and important insight. I can remember back as an NQT in 2003 when the Head of Humanities shared with us a grid showing ‘expected progress’ throughout Key Stage 3. The unspoken assumption was that pupils would make the progress on that grid. And so that’s exactly what went on the spreadsheet.

      As I said, dangerous territory and something that I increasingly railed against before moving into Further/Higher Education last year…

  6. Absolutely. And we’ve known about this for a long time (SirKen argues it stems directly from the economic model of industrial Britain…). 

    One of the scariest results comes from (Leper, 1973), where extrinsic motivations (and I would include test results in that category) have a devastatingly negative effect on a child’s personal motivation – regardless of the result itself. The terrifying thing in this paper is that, after the test, children did not want to engage in the test activities for several days (in this case, drawing pictures with coloured pencils!). So we have a system that naturally results in demotivation. (Leper’s work repeats earlier studies, too, but it’s too hot here to find it – sorry).
    I do wonder whether it is now simply ‘convenient’ to record 9/10 rather than ‘a lot of effort has gone into this and good use of critical thinking was demonstrated’. One of these is easier to to put in an excel cell… 

    LEPPER, M.R., GREENE, D. and NISBETT, R.E.,
    1973. Undermining children’s intrinsic interest with extrinsic reward: A test
    of the “overjustification” hypothesis. Journal of personality and
    social psychology, 28(1), pp. 129-137.

    • Indeed (thanks for the reference!) and the value of using formative comments rather than summative scoring is so well-known it’s a national disgrace that it isn’t the norm.

  7. Great post as ever, and (in my view) completely right in identifying the fact that the biggest obstacle to educational reform is the assessment system. While Theo is right about their being business interests in the maintenance of the status quo I also wonder if there also might be business interest in an alternative to the system them that the CBI so regularly complain isn’t delivering the kind of workers that business and the economy need.
    It’s interesting to note that the Opening Minds programme was developed from a report which investigated what kind of citizens (including workers) would be needed in the future. I’d love to see an organisation like the RSA go back and conduct some research into what kind of currency students should be leaving with. I’d bet it wouldn’t be GCSEs and A Levels.