Routine takes the drama out of testing

4th January 2008 at 00:00
"It really works, Mum: the constant tests, the checking if you're in school, the reports and grades. It keeps you up to it," said my teenage son on the way back from parents' evening.

Tests punctuate my son's school life. Yet they cause him no especial grief. He is not one of those "tested to destruction" kids. He just comes home, learns his stuff, goes in, does the test, checks if he hasn't learnt anything, then if necessary learns it again. Nor is he some teenage angel; this is the pattern of behaviour which the school lays down, and pupils - mostly - follow.

The paraphernalia of private education includes twice-termly grades and termly reports, hand-written and all about the pupil (no computer-programmed menu of phrases), phone calls to find out why any pupil is absent; weekly tests and marks for effort, prizes and honour marks. All these ensure that no one slips behind. And while no parent wants their child to struggle, fee-paying parents may be particularly prone to pounce on backsliding.

But of course, these teacher-tests are not like Sats or GCSEs, tests that dominate the landscape for months at a time, tests that are taught to because they are there, that diminish learning by narrowing it to set answers. These are the kind of tests that teachers have always used: the weekly "vocab" test, the trigonometry test, the comprehension exercise on Of Mice and Men. Crucially, at my son's school, they are not marked then forgotten. The teachers note the weaknesses - at parents' evening they can tell you strengths and weaknesses from every test and homework that year - and use them to refocus teaching and learning for individual students. To use the top terms of today, they are tests for personalised learning and assessment for learning. And because the tests are frequent, there is little stress. Nothing except for checking up on learning is riding on each test.

Private education is privileged, you may rightly say. Classes are small, parents are motivated, children are selected. Yet if all the money that has been spent on this, that and the other education initiative in the last decade had been spent on employing more classroom teachers to make smaller classes; if, instead of running punishing national tests, the Government would devolve funds to schools for personalised assessment for learning; if "communities for learners" (another buzzphrase) were to succeed in involving families in their children's schooling, then tests could stop being a dirty word and resume their place as a useful tool for teachers. And pupils could take them in their stride.

Victoria Neumark, Parent of a sixth-former at an independent London school.

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