Testing – For What?

“If we are insistent on having exams for these Primary School children, then what are we testing for?”

“Well, of course, we want to know what they have learned and what they can do.”

“In that case, is there any legitimate good reason why there should be time limits on the exam? Doesn’t that test something else?”

The room full of teachers looked at me with such horror that I felt I might need to do a quick check to see that I hadn’t just grown a second head.

I’ve long believed that there are times when, as leaders, one of our most valuable responsibilities is to ask naive and simple questions that challenge and question those things that are taken for granted within a profession. The reality is education and teaching have many of these things – practices and processes that are applied without question or application of curiosity to see whether they really make sense. This is a particular issue in schools that espouse a desire to move to more child-centric and learner oriented education methods (especially personalisation) but still do a multitude of things that aren’t really compatible with those goals – simply because they haven’t been questioned.

The conversation at the top of this post really happened. It was about 11 years ago, but I’ve also had similar conversations with teachers in other places much more recently. So, I was interested when i saw this article from New York Times and wanted to share it;

New York Times – State Will Shed Clock For Some Statewide Tests

Seeing the headline and the initial part of the article one might have reason to believe that this was all positive and a recognition and response to do something that makes sense for positive progress in education. However, reflection on the final part of the article suggests that the intent is more manipulative and potentially a devious move by those hell-bent on pushing forward the agenda of the standards movement in US public education. Could it be that this is a sop to appease increasingly frustrated and angry teachers and parents? These are people (politicians particularly) who are convinced that the way to raise standards in education and have a higher level of quality is to change the nature of teachers’ jobs by linking their remuneration and even job security to performance in standardised tests.

We only need to stop for a second to see that what they’re doing doesn’t make sense. If the question in their minds was about how to have a system of assessing children’s learning that was beneficial, meaningful and led to genuine progress n leaning for every child, then why continue with the standardised formal exams? Why not advocate for a form of more formative assessments and application of a fuller range of assessment tools and strategies? Secondly, if the time limit on the exams is removed, how does this create a level playing field for all teachers such that the data nerated can be trusted as a basis for judging their performance, determining salary increases and even issues of job security and tenure?

I continue to believe that if we are truly putting the children/ learners first – then there’s no place for examinations in the earlier years of their education at all. There are so many more effective ways of assessing progress that provide meaningful ways to plan their way forward for continuous learning progress. Exams are not some holy sanctified process for which years of learning and practice are necessary – we want to create great citizens and young people who can make a meaningful contribution to the world, not exam ninjas!

In the meantime, I will consider it my duty to continue to ask naive questions, challenge and probe so that together educators can bring positive reform in our profession.

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