Tests Don’t Raise Standards – Learning Does

Recently, the head of our federated state schools shared his opinion with a local newspaper about the testing of seven year olds. I have to agree. Testing seven year olds won’t improve standards, but learning will.

What was interesting was a letter sent to the newspaper in response to this article, reading:

Dear Sir,
I can’t have been the only reader to have been shocked by the arrogant rant of head-teacher Steve Woodhouse at a new Government education policy, coupled with his pernicious attack against Nicky Morgan the Education Secretary (Pocklington Post Thurs 12 Nov.) Mr Woodhouse might remember he is a public servant and not some self-appointed Government Strategist and Education Advisor.
The need for the introduction of simple national tests for children as young as seven stems from a basic failure of our education system, and the desire by the Government to rectify it by the elimination of illiteracy and innumeracy in Britain and thus in later years, restoring this country to near-full employment. In 2012, a shocking 44% of pupils failed to secure a GCSE pass in maths and English by the age of 16, and almost half never studied these subjects again afterwards. This is a disgraceful indictment of our education system as it operates today and justifiable reason for the need to change.
Mr Woodhouse assures us that, ‘teachers regularly assess seven-year olds themselves, without the need for any formal testing’. Yet teachers traditionally bleat about large class sizes and thus the impossibility of 1:1 teaching! He assures us that the current system, ‘works very well’ and this is, ‘probably why Nicky Morgan wants to change it’. A disrespectful and ignorant comment and probably the reason why Nicky Morgan has not yet responded to the pearls of wisdom delivered to her in his emails!
He goes on to assure us, in a list, of the many aspects of primary education that tests can’t measure. However, the most, ,thoughtful, creative, honest, confident, kind, loyal, determined compassionate, and intuitive, child is of little use to an employer if they can’t count or spell. Moreover they subsequently become a burden on both themselves and society. The percentage of illiterate and innumerate inmates in our local and dispersal prisons is shocking.
No-one would wish to stifle a teacher’s natural creativity, but this wonderful skill should be firstly channelled into teaching basic numeracy and literacy skills with a follow-up assessment of how successful this has been.
It is not the Government’s intention to impose strict ‘exam conditions’ on children, as Mr Woodhouse asserts. These are simple benign tests designed to highlight those children needing additional training in, maths, reading, grammar and punctuation.
To accuse the education secretary of ‘putting our children at risk’ by imposing an ‘unnecessary burden’ of ‘mindless policies’ and being ‘devoid of compassion’ is contemptuous of both Nicky Morgan and her predecessor Michael’s Gove’s attempts to bring our country back to full employment and prosperity.
I respectfully suggest that Mr Woodhouse’s time (paid for by the tax-payer I would remind him) would be better spent focusing on the educational brief Nicky Morgan has given him, rather than on composing ill-conceived, self-righteous criticisms of Government policies every week for the Pocklington Post.

Yours sincerely,
A. J. Wilson,

Let’s start the fun and begin to pick apart this strange argument for tests – one of few I’ve seen.

Firstly, I’d like to point out that there is a ‘lag time’ between educational results and unemployment. The notion that better education will wield lower levels of unemployment is a good one, but the results won’t be seen for years. Schooling starts at a young age and, if done right throughout, will take upwards of 10 years to see the results. In plain English: it takes time for kids to grow up and get jobs. Keeping that in mind, big drops in unemployment levels, starting in 2013 (as seen in this wonderful interactive graph by the BBC) is reliant on children being taught at least 10 years earlier. So, if we’re judging the quality of education based on unemployment rates, we need to wait years to see how well schooling has done. In addition, education is not the sole cause of fix of unemployment. Economical growth and wellbeing has a greater impact.

On to the point of the shocking GCSE results in 2012. I’m really not sure where 7 year-old tests relates to GCSEs. The argument against tests is that they provide unnecessary stress for anyone, especially for younger children. As for accessing HE to study English or Maths further, again I’m not sure where this fits in with 7 year olds. The point against testing 7 year olds is that they’re still developing simple theories and concepts about the world. By the time it gets to GCSE level, children will already have an understanding of English and Mathematical concepts, as well as much more, because they’ll have been taught them throughout their prior education. They’ll have something that’s actually worth testing, and more importantly, their tests have a purpose (towards assisting the decision whether or not to employ someone). As I’ll explain in a moment, teachers can assess children aged 7 in an effective manner and this information is really only used to inform their next teacher to enable them to maximise their efficiency. We simply don’t need tests for 7 year olds – the purpose of them is nothing. Tests are also a summative means of assessment. That means that they assess a child in one area, at one time, on one day. Teacher assessments are formative and, because they’re made on a longer time span, feed into teaching and learning. Imagine being tested on that day you had a couple of months ago when you were ill and under the weather. You’d have scored terribly. Imagine being 7 and having the same day. Now imagine being 7, still learning what multiplication even is and how to use written methods to solve problems, feeling stressed because your teacher has felt the enormous pressure of the testing system (and some of this stress has seeped through to you)… and you’re ill. Tell me that’s necessary when we, as teachers, already know how our class is performing.

Now, as I’ve touched on, assessing in the classroom is an essential part of teaching. How do we know what to even teach? Yeah, we’ve got the curriculum – which coincidentally has been dragged in sideways and expectations have dramatically leapt up without taking into account that the prior knowledge is missing, but I digress – but how do we know the children are ready to learn to multiply fractions? Well, we use that three or four years of training we got ourselves into university debt for, and we assess. It’s worth noting for our friend A.J Wilson, who I’m now affectionately simply dubbing AJ (it sounds cool), that teaching includes assessing. Teaching is not assessing. Teaching is the sum of multiple smaller bits and bobs, assessment being one of them. Now, AJ notes that with class sizes creeping up it has an impact on 1:1 time with each child. And I agree. However, because assessment is ongoing and is done every single day, you can be sure you’ll know where 90% of your class is by the end of each week. The 10% you’re not sure on..? Well, you probably have some idea but you make sure you get your assessment on those guys first the following week. Viola. How do I know this works? Because I’ve compared my teacher assessments against standardised tests, against the assessments of other teachers, against government examples of specific ability ‘levels’ (for lack of a better word)… and because I know the kids better than a test marker ever will. Teacher assessment takes time, and isn’t the most fun thing in the world to write and track (so much tracking!), but it works. Better than a test.

Next are AJ’s beliefs about the fundamentals of better people. Maths and English knowledge prevent you from becoming a burden on society, right? Wrong. Here’s a lovely idea: Google graduate struggles for jobs. In fact, click this link – I did it for you. Take a look at just a few of those news items and you’ll find endless stories of people with quality degrees struggling to get jobs, and presumably needing help from the tax payers fund. In 2014, The Independent’s statistical findings noted that 40% of graduates were still looking for a job 6 months after graduating, and 25% still didn’t have a job after a year! 47% of those that found a job before 6 months were in employment in jobs that didn’t actually require a degree anyway – which suggests those graduates who studied so hard couldn’t get the jobs that they trained for anyway. After that bunch of stats, I think I’ve made the point that degrees does not an economically stable individual make.

I also would’ve thought that now, more than ever, the importance of being kind, caring, thoughtful (etc., etc.) would’ve stood out. The recent terror events in the media have stunned me to my very core and I can’t believe there are people out there who would do such things. I’m sure AJ would have to agree that these people lacking in caring, thoughtful and kind qualities have been the biggest burden on society.

Even as a teacher, where my job is to primarily improve the English and Mathematical understanding of children (thanks, 2014 National Curriculum!), I’d still say other qualities are more important. I would wholeheartedly feel a failure in my job if I’d ever endeavoured to teach maths and English to miserable children. Isn’t it a fundamental right to be happy? I’d also value emotional understanding, compassion and thoughtfulness as some of the more valuable skills needed by a teacher. It’s not all equations and apostrophes – school is where children learn how to socially interact, ready for the ‘big world’ when they’ve grown up. I’m also sure that teaching isn’t the only profession where these qualities are the most sought after. Care workers, doctors and nurses, anyone working with children, or anyone working with any one at all should have these qualities, and, in my opinion, they’re more valuable than being confident in maths and English understanding. Who wants to work with a maths whizz if they don’t know how to work as part of your team? Not me, that’s for sure.

AJ discusses that it’s not the intention of the Government to impose strict test conditions on children. However, it is imposed on them already! Year six SATs are sat in test conditions, in silence and with only the given resources to help answer questions. The minute you take the children into a timed condition, make them sit in silence and tell them they can only answer the questions using the pencil and ruler in front of them, they struggle. The worst part of it is that they struggle because they know they can do it, but they worry that they won’t have enough time, won’t answer using the correct method, or start second guessing what the question means. My highest ability children in the class, the ones that know how to do almost everything you teach them, that can apply it to complex problems and are confident – even they struggle when moved to another room. Tests impact children, that’s the bottom line… And, as I’ve already explained, they’re not even needed!

Finally, as we’re paid by the tax payer, I’d like to point out that I’m writing this in my own time. I’m at home on the sofa after spending my own time this weekend planning, assessing, creating resources, and marking – all of which aren’t paid by anyone. I would also like to respectfully remind A.J Wilson that I also pay tax, and simply because teachers work in the public sector does not mean they answer to every tax payer, nor that they’ re self-righteous for having an opinion. I’m self-aware and aware of the environment in which I work.

Hang on a minute, I pay tax! Does that mean I partially pay myself?!..

4 thoughts on “Tests Don’t Raise Standards – Learning Does

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