Implications of Standardised Testing

The anti-testing debate rages on, with an editorial this week in tes magazine.

Standardised testing has many advocates and many critics and I don’t intend to be one of them in this post. But what I am interested in discussing is what is the link between the attitude towards the results of standardised tests and the effect.

The tes editorial was a discussion of testing in the US. One box questioned whether American students are “really over-tested?”, and the justification for suggesting not (“The US is not a country of heavy testing”) is its comparison to other countries. Andreas Schleicher (the OECD’s education chief) suggests that plenty of other countries, with better educational outcomes, test a lot more. I wonder whether the reason there doesn’t appear to be a backlash against them might lie in the attitudes towards those tests. Perhaps the reason Americans feel they are in an educational regime of over-testing is because the stakes are so high. If teachers are at risk of disciplinary action as a result of these tests and if students are told the results of these tests will dramatically impact their futures (graduating, going to college, getting a “decent” job, being successful, being happy – the subtext behind all this rhetoric is quite alarming) then even with fewer actual tests than other countries, the culture may feel like there is ongoing testing.

Brains are notoriously inaccurate with the representations of time and events and recollection. For events of high emotion, this is emphasised. We all know how our mood can affect our sense of time passing – the slow lag of time during a boring afternoon vs the hop through during an exciting day – but it can also affect our recollection and anticipation of time to come. The latter half of secondary school (ages 11-16) is characterised by a heavy march to standardised tests at the end of year 11 – GCSEs (taken at age 16). The reality is that this testing period lasts a few weeks at the end of the school career. However, in my memory there was up to three years of preparation, stress, anticipation which add to the sense that in secondary school there is a lot of standardised testing. It felt like my GCSEs results were going to be a comprehensive picture of me as a person which would be given out to everyone to make their judgement of me on the basis of. It also felt like I was allowed to make judgements about others based on this very same measure. But GCSEs don’t tell anyone the half of what a person is like. They don’t even tell us what a person is like academically. Did the student who got an A in Maths cram for the week before the exam after spending two years dossing around in class? Did the student who got a C in English consistently and diligently apply himself to a subject which he found hard?

I want the student who consistently and diligently worked at something, despite not being proficient (yet), who didn’t give up, who didn’t concede defeat. That’s the student that sounds ideal – for further education, for employment, for life. But the slip of paper with GCSE results printed on doesn’t tell me anything about this.
That’s not to say that standardised tests don’t tell us anything useful or important. And I’m not weighing in (yet?) on whether standardised testing is good, bad, or (likely) somewhere in the muddy, murky forgotten middle ground between the two sides. But even the best tests can’t tell us about a person, about their motives or their attitude and so we need to be careful that we are not using standardised tests for a purpose they cannot fill.

And perhaps if we reduced the impact of standardised test results, we would lessen the stress and pressure on students and thus reduce their present state of unhappiness (one of the main complaints of the anti-testing advocates); we might also improve performance because a relaxed and happy brain is better at learning information and better at recalling information, better at marshalling it into useful answers, better at adequately representing what it knows. We might get a better sense of the person a student is becoming because instead of spending all their time worrying about tests and needlessly working towards them, students can spend their time pursuing extracurricular activities, of honing non-academic skills and hobbies. They might improve their social and emotional skills leading to better adapted members of communities. They might learn what they love, what they want to pursue, how to build meaningful relationships with individuals who are not exactly like them. In short, they might fulfil their full potential, not just their academic potential.

Of course, this is speculation. Who knows what the outcome would really be. What is certain is that high stakes testing in its current form does not allow children to develop all these crucial non-academic skills.

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Implications of Standardised Testing

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