High-stakes exams are a low blow for learning

6th May 2016 at 00:00
The pressure of assessment restricts teachers and pupils, so instead of reintroducing unwelcome national tests, let’s celebrate the good practice that’s already out there

When the recently reformed Scottish Association for the Teaching of English hosted a thought-provoking seminar in March, its coordinator, Raymond Soltysek, invited us to be simultaneously optimistic and pessimistic about the future of Scottish education.

On the plus side, his stirring introduction commended the new approach to professional review and development – if it proves to be as supportive as has been claimed. He also praised moves to make teachers the agents of their own development with the support of online resources available through social media, TeachMeets, Pedagoo and the National Association for the Teaching of English.

On the downside, he pointed to: the endorsement of unqualified teachers by businessman Sir Tom Hunter, whose views on Scottish education were the subject of a recent BBC Scotland documentary; economic factors increasingly driving reform; the academisation of schools in England and the closure of school libraries. All of these, he said, were generating pessimism.

We mustn’t lose sight of what is going on in England. Dr Bethan Marshall and Dr Simon Gibbons from King’s College London – who also spoke at the seminar – are experts on what’s happening with testing and attainment south of the border. And Gibbons gets to the heart of a matter (which, given the recent direction of policy at Holyrood, is highly relevant in Scotland) with two questions: do high-stakes tests actually improve attainment, and is there an alternative?

Boycotts and reversals

National tests (or Sats), which were introduced in England in the early 1990s, were boycotted by teachers in 1993, for reasons familiar to us in Scotland from our own experiences of national testing: the narrowing of the curriculum; results being used inappropriately; the validity and reliability of tests called into question; the conflict with the Assessment for Learning vision; the pressure on teachers and pupils and the diminished quality of learning.

After damning reports by the likes of the Institute for Public Policy Research thinktank in 2006 and a House of Commons select committee in 2008, the tests were abolished at secondary level. Although data indicated that scores went up, the apparent success, when scrutinised, revealed that the attainment gap had widened. The answer to Gibbons’ first question, therefore, is a resounding “no”.

When Marshall delineates a typical English classroom “exam lesson”, it is disturbing in the extreme. The teacher begins by sharing the learning objectives – nothing alarming there. The activities that follow, though, are configured in the format of the well-known approach to writing literature evaluations: point, evidence, explanation. Although this tool has its place as a scaffold for inexperienced readers and writers, to apply such an approach so extensively undoubtedly creates a straitjacket for teachers and learners.

Even more disconcerting is the lesson end. Pupils are directed to reflect on examination criteria and consider to what extent progress has been made in their journey, not to learning, but to being prepared for the exam.

And what about the teachers who are under immense pressure to squeeze themselves into this educational harness? Sadly, accountability is such a powerful weapon that most seem to fall into quiet acquiescence – while others simply quit the profession.

This naturally prompts consideration of the Scottish government’s intention to reintroduce national testing. First minister Nicola Sturgeon has claimed that, as part of the National Improvement Framework, the tests will address the “attainment gap” between children from lower-income and higher-income families. Really?

And hold on. Is this not a total contradiction of everything we already know about testing? It is only 10 years since national tests were abolished for compelling reasons almost identical to the criticisms of Sats. It seems that we are about to reintroduce a glaring flaw in the education system of 13 years ago.

Have we learned nothing from all that was invested in Assessment for Learning? A great many teachers in Scotland are committed to the principles of formative assessment, and execute the approaches to the benefit of their pupils. Many would also agree with Marshall when she says that if teachers focus on teaching well, rather than teaching to the test, pupils do better in exams and elsewhere.

Marshall speaks of a teacher who chooses not to follow the prescribed “exam lesson” format, instead creating a far richer, more meaningful experience that stimulates pupils’ minds in ways that the rigidity of the prescribed format cannot.

This teacher deliberately says little, so that the learners will say more; in fact, they talk at some length, engaging in critical thinking that yields meaningful insights. He shows genuine interest in what learners think and say, in order to develop learning, rather than driving them to predetermined goals. He avoids monopolising what is said; after all, deep learning often comes from what pupils themselves think, hear and say.

This scenario, then, provides a satisfying response to Gibbons’ second question.

The teaching described above is “like being in a conversation”, as Marshall puts it, and is similar to “dialogic teaching”, in which learners are given opportunities to engage in class discussions on a more equal footing with the teacher. Much of the research in the field of classroom dialogue attests to its benefits in exams. It results in the sort of literary analysis that pupils need to master to succeed in school and life: the ability to hypothesise, to synthesise and to support interpretation through close reference to the text.

When Marshall talks about this exemplary teacher who dares to step outside the demands of conventional exam preparation, she finishes by highlighting his “testimony to ambiguity” – his belief that teachers should be flexible and facilitate the exploration of complex ideas through discussion, rather than being constrained by tests, rigid approaches and imposed formats. This kind of teaching is found in the best classrooms in Scotland. Why would we want to jeopardise it?

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