Do We Test Children Too Much?

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Testing Pupils


Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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Do our schools in England test children too much, particularly at primary level?

I don’t have a problem with 4, 6 and 11 year olds being tested in our primary schools. Testing knowledge is good. The real issue is ‘how’ the data is used for school accountability.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has declared he would ‘scrap primary SATS if elected’ is a cheap publicity stunt. Meanwhile, Nick Gibb says ‘abolishing SATs would be [a] hugely retrograde step’.

The last time I checked up on Gibb and Corbyn’s knowledge of classroom assessment was never!

Are we measuring the right things?

High-stakes accountability leads to all sorts of interesting things we see happening in some of our schools. ‘Gaming’ sadly, does happen in some of our primary schools where year 6 pupils are ‘rehearsed’ or ‘supported’. This is purely a byproduct of how schools are measured in DfE league tables and how schools are then inspected by Ofsted. This, in some form, fuels teacher workload.

Workload (plus accountability) then leads to our teachers prematurely leaving the teaching profession. This is costly. Testing pupils aren’t the problem. Most teachers will support the notion that assessment forms a deep part of teacher-pedagogy and feedback for the classroom. Examinations is another issue, but for now, let’s focus on how 4, 6 and 11-year-olds are tested – and how this is reported. It’s the accountability model that is the real issue, not testing pupils or the number of tests.

How will the government use the data?

The Department for Education says: “We will use [reception assessment] as the baseline for measuring the progress primary schools make with their pupils” from 2020. “Schools will carry out the assessment within the first 6 weeks of children starting school.” In fairness, these will be ‘low level’.

The test will be completed on a device which will ask the pupil for ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ responses. Using algorithms, the test will then adapt what it asks of the pupil. The DfE has refused to publish sample questions on maths and literacy. The DfE says: “No numerical score will be shared, and the data will only be used at the end of year 6 to form the school-level progress measure.”

We have to unpick the definition of “shared.”

To who:

  • The child?
  • The parent?
  • The school?
  • The public?

The costs?

The tests cost £9.8m over two years to develop, designed to predict how well a child will perform (progress over time) seven years later at the age of 11. I’m not familiar with any country in the world who has yet to design a reliable tool to predict future outcomes. Anyone? The DfE says “The new assessment will create school-level progress measures for primary schools which show the progress pupils make from reception until the end of key stage 2. Unlike the current progress measure, this will give schools credit for the important work they do…”

Is this a poor excuse for ‘we have been measuring schools unfairly over the past’ and now we think we’ve got it right? The devil is in the details. Remember above  the DfE said the results will not be “shared.” Well, here is the true issue with testing pupils. The DfE says “We will publish these measures for all-through primaries in the summer of 2027 for the first time.” How this happens drives of all the above and more: pupil mental health, exclusions, teacher workload, attrition, gaming, off-rolling etc.

In 7 years from now …

Fast forward to 2027 and we are most likely to see: Pupil to pupil comparison Primary league tables Another decade of Ofsted metrics Teacher workload issues Less cash, better results rhetoric Teachers teaching to the test parents not wanting their child sitting exams. I don’t believe any teacher will claim that testing, examinations or assessment in the classroom is a bad thing for pupils. I’d be shocked if that were the case.

The genuine issue is not ‘how many tests’ or ‘when the tests are conducted’, it is how the results will be reported … and parental perceptions of the test and how the results are then translated and reported to teachers, parents, the school and the pupil. We don’t yet know who this is to be “shared” with.

That word again, accountability.

High-stakes accountability versus impact?

We are not the most tested jurisdiction in the world, but we certainly do have one of the world’s leading (high-stakes) teacher-accountability models. Our politicians would do better if they heeded the advice of the NAHT accountability commission and 7 recommendations for education in England.

A better way has already been mapped out without ranking pupils. In Challenging the Average, Todd Rose argues for a better metric which is a fairer and more reliable way for students. In summary, test pupils? Yes. Test pupils at 4, 6, 11 and throughout secondary school? Yes. And, find a better way of spending cash to design a more intelligent accountability model that fixes all of the above. We are not there yet, and I don’t think a digital device will truly be able to asses what a 4-year-old knows.

Either way, testing what pupils know is a good thing, we should just be mindful of how the data is reported. It would be helpful to read Tim Oates’ summary on some assessment myths about England being the ‘most assessed’, or our children being the ‘most stressed’.
  • England is NOT the most assessed country in the world.
  • Finland has a history of testing
  • Singapore and Hong Kong, pupils do very well – above the UK – but display high levels of stress.

To be fair, my son did okay in the phonics check thanks to the hard work of his teachers. Despite being premature and ‘behind his peers’, the tests allowed him to make some big leaps forward, and he actually learnt to read better! Whether or not me being at home was a factor or not, I have no evidence.

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