Testing Times: Musings from a Year 6 Teacher

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Hollie Anderton

Hollie is currently an English teacher and Head of Year in North Wales with a degree in Theatre. She trained in Bath Spa University to gain her PGCE and is currently a Network Leader for WomenEd Wales Hollie is the author of the Teacher Toolkit...
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How much should we be teaching to tests?

Teachers are persistently told that we should not teach to tests but with the multitude of pressures that these tests bring, do we have much choice?

Pressures on the Test Period

Pressures come from different places. Teachers have pressure from their headteacher to succeed, and meet targets based in tests. Showing progress is understandably a must, but some Heads use these examinations as performance management targets for teachers to strive for. Often, these targets are unattainable and come from higher institutions who also need to reach theirs.

Pressures also come from parents, of course parents want their children to succeed, but it is an unfortunate truth that if the children don’t succeed on tests, that generally tends to reflect unfavourably on the class teacher.

The issue that we have here is that teachers are pushed to ensure that 30 children will perform to the best of their ability on one day set by the Government. We are educators, not time travellers.

It is important to note, however, that these pressures do not reside solely with teachers. The majority of children, in my experience, do not enjoy tests. They don’t enjoy that half an hour to an hour of pure panic wherein they must demonstrate 9 months of learning. The pressures on the children come from parents, teachers, and often – more worryingly – themselves. The amount of tension that our children carry on their shoulders, alongside their oversized backpacks, is inordinate for their age. When giving a practise test to my class last year, a pupil – 10 years old – looked at me with a bambi-esque expression and whimpered:

“Is this going to the government?”

I have never mentioned government testing to my classes, and yet they are aware. They are aware that their intelligence and capability is being shared with outside institutions, something that is personal and that they are conscious about. In my opinion, this is not something that children should be concerning themselves with.

In which case, why test?

I’m not so naive to think that testing can just go away, I understand that we need tests. Tests measure progress, both teacher and child. It assesses a child’s readiness for High School. It allows us to compare our children with others and it contributes to school data.

But is it worth it?

The negatives of testing surely outweigh the positives in terms of teacher-pupil wellbeing. Children and teachers are expected to reach sometimes unattainable heights and this gives our children an unrealistic view of real-life, something that we are supposed to be preparing them for.

Teaching to Tests

Some primary schools spend this entire term preparing pupils to take their end of year tests. All sense of timetable and routine tends to be scrapped and instead, they are replaced with more Literacy – specifically reading in Wales – and Numeracy. What are our children then missing out on when we are cutting out subjects that are done throughout the rest of the year? PE, music and art are usually the first to go. Those subjects that would be perfect to give the children a break from their full-on revision schedule, but they don’t provide enough of the ‘measurable skills’ to stay in the testing period timetable.

Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place

When we are faced with such high standards, can we afford to not teach to tests? Can we afford to continue as we have been, risk the drop in results? Of course, the skills needed for testing should be being taught throughout the year but will the children remember a skill that was taught once back in September? No, probably not because skills need to be introduced, consolidated and embedded throughout the year.

Teaching is an increasingly stressful career that is causing more and more people to leave. Testing is a contributing factor to this. How long will it be until people wake up and see that things need to change?

How many incredible educators will we have to lose?

6 thoughts on “Testing Times: Musings from a Year 6 Teacher

  1. Couldn’t agree more. I really dislike the teacher I have become. Tests are fine if they are a celebration of what you know and an opportunity for children to shine and feel good about themselves. SATS do not do this- the curriculum is ludicrous especially the grammar with its pointless learning of jargon to regurgitate. The maths is too hard and means that although we may cram them for the test most are not secure and they’ll all do it again in secondary school. So often Y 7s come back and tell us they are doing Y5 and 6 work all over again. But perhaps the reading is the most discriminatory- far too middle class in its choice of ltopic. Luckily we no longer have a writing test , although having one would be an eye opener and would avoid the inconsistency of teacher assessment and what is and isn’t independent work. Some teachers feel so stressed they are practically doing the writing for them and only yesterday I had a disagreement with my head over a child’s writing . He has gone back to printing – it’s legible and he writes at a good pace but no I now have to make him join. because that’s on the assessment sheet. The whole thing is ridiculous- poor children , poor teachers. Why the heads don’t opt out is beyond me. I hope I’d be braver enough.

  2. I teach functional skills maths and English at a private training provider and we too just teach our learners to pass a test, which I think is so wrong.
    I was told by my daughter’s head of English that there is an assumption that SPAG has been taught to high enough standard for year 7s to function with the level of work given. This really concerns me in terms of the pressure on primary teachers to get them to that level and the children to be able to perform these skills at that level. So evidently high schools are again teaching children to pass a test GCSE and not giving them the skills they need to function in life, during and after schools.
    As a parent of two, one in year 7 as said and one in year 3, we boycotted the last SAT as we did not want our kids to be put under so much pressure at such a young age. To alleviate the pressure my for my daughter in year 7, I do her homework so she can have her childhood. This has not affected her general school work, as she is doing really well, it has probably helped her in that she has a break from school work.
    I feel for school teachers given your workloads and the pressure you’re under to hit performance figures and this leading to an exodus of very talented people and just as bad, putting off talent from entering the profession in the first place.
    Change has got to come and quickly!

  3. I too am disappointed with the current system of testing, and have also had performance management targets based on KS2 SAT performance for the past two years. This is unfair as SATs measure learning over an entire 4 years, not simply the 2 terms they are in my class before they sit them. However, I am pleased to say I don’t think that many of my class are stressed by the tests (though this is also in danger of changing). I present the tests as a ‘chance to show-off what they do know’ and help me know what I need to teach better. It is tough feeling that the performance of the whole school is on the shoulders of one teacher, and though I know that’s not the case, after teaching yr6 for the past 5 years (and yr2 for the 2 before that) – I am finding the weight of responsibility harder to bear.

  4. There are numerous advantages and disadvantages of testing. Anderton correctly points out some of the flaws of testing, such as teaching to the test and additional stress on students and teachers that may negatively affect performance. In accordance with Anderton, one should take caution when using government tests to create lesson plans for teaching students. While these tests provide benchmarks and preliminary goals for teachers, relying on these annual tests may lead to limiting what children are capable of learning and reducing the number of positive challenges students may face. The method of using theories of development to determine what to teach children and when, which is associated with critical thinking, does not frequently work within the field of education because each student will learn at a different rate (Willingham Lecture, 2/14/17). Taking this into consideration, it seems more harmful to postpone learning a particular concept until students are “ready” than to introduce a new concept early.

    Furthermore, it is necessary to take into consideration the positives of testing. According to Pashler’s “Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning,” there is strong evidence that the testing effect plays an important role in advancing learning. Specifically, active retrieval of information and corrective feedback that is given on tests before a final test, significantly improve performance on the final test (Pashler et al., 2007). Furthermore, Anderton touches on the idea of testing in regards to that mandated by the government, but testing is an everyday phenomenon that happens in the classroom. While testing is generally thought of as sitting down at a desk and silently answering questions, there are other forms of testing that can be more casual and interactive. For example, students can be tested by participating in more informal testing methods, such as playing Jeopardy or answering questions via iClicker during class (Pashler et al., 2007). These are less intimidating ways for teachers to adequately assess students’ progress.

    While testing is a measure of performance that can be translated into a numerical value of perceived learning, it is also a way to improve memory and reduce the amount of lost information (Pashler et al., 2007). This is important to recognize because testing should not be solely associated with learning what is taught at school. In accordance with Anderton, testing must be repeated and spaced out in order for a child to accurately remember (Pashler et al., 2007). Furthermore, incentives and motivation are factors that should be considered when investigating performance, but according to Kang & Pashler’s experiment regarding learning Swahili-English word pairs, there is little correlation between learning strategies, incentives, and motivation (Kang & Pashler, 2014).

    Regarding Anderton’s pupil that was aware that the tests the class were taking might be intended for a separate entity from the school, two important questions to consider are: “Will learning about the purpose of the tests from teachers rather than parents or others change the way that students perform on tests?” and “What would be an appropriate age to begin sharing this information?” Transparency for the students is an interesting topic to consider, since it could affect motivation levels and performance.

    In conclusion, this post brings forward some important features of testing that should be considered, but further research should be conducted and/or referenced specifically regarding government testing in comparison to everyday testing.

  5. The fact that writing is teacher assessed and the tasks not specified gives teachers an ideal opportunity to inject some creativity and fun into the week. We have written non chronological reports on super heroes we have invented, after we had drawn and painted pictures of them. We are writing spy stories and will do some drama in the run up to planning them. Squeeze in some fun!

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