The litmus test for exams should be clarity of purpose

20th May 2016 at 00:00
Parents and teachers may believe too much testing is bad for pupils but studies reveal a more complex picture

There are certain truisms that are continually repeated as exam season begins: that pupils are over-tested, that the pressure of exams leads to stress and anxiety, and that preparing for tests takes up classroom time that might otherwise be more productively and creatively spent.

But research evidence reveals that, inevitably, the issue is more complicated than that.

A US study of 4,200 pupils, teachers and parents, conducted by the Northwest Evaluation Association, revealed that the vast majority of teachers – 83 per cent – felt that their pupils were tested too much. And 71 per cent of school principals felt the same way. (Federal law in the US requires that individual states test pupils between Grade 3 – equivalent to Year 4 – and the end of high school.) But the study found only 23 per cent of pupils questioned believed that they were tested too much.

Two-thirds said that they were tested just the right amount during their time at school, and 9 per cent claimed that they were not tested enough.

It is not just pupils in the US who feel this way. Last week, TES revealed that, while most teachers and parents want key stage 2 tests scrapped, more than half of pupils thought that the tests should stay.

But one of education’s most influential and far-reaching studies suggests that tests may not be the most effective way to improve outcomes. In a table ranking 28 classroom interventions by their effectiveness, based on 1,200 meta-analyses, John Hattie, director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute, placed testing at number 18.

His research found that testing had less impact on pupils’ learning than feedback, class environment and teacher style.

However, research by Paul Howard-Jones, professor of neuroscience and education at the University of Bristol, conducted on behalf of the Education Endowment Foundation, concluded: “There is a strong educational and scientific evidence base for the effectiveness of testing in improving learning.”

Dominic Wyse, of the University College London (UCL) Institute of Education, who researches curriculum and assessment, says that it depends on the type of tests used. “For me, the important thing is: how high-stakes are the tests, and what are the consequences?” he told TES. “It’s not just about quantity. It’s about quality and impact.”

Narrowing of the curriculum

High-stakes tests, he said, tend to result in a narrowing of the curriculum and an increase of pressure on pupils. For example, he cited an in-depth qualitative study by Diane Reay, of the University of Cambridge and Dylan Wiliam, of the UCL Institute of Education.

In their paper, the academics quote a primary pupil, Hannah, saying: “I’m hopeless at times tables, so I’m frightened I’ll do the Sats and I’ll be a nothing.”

Professor Wyse said: “The big problem in England is the confusion of purposes for assessment. We shouldn’t confuse assessing pupils’ learning with measures for holding teachers accountable.”

The importance of keeping these two purposes distinct is revealed through international comparisons, according to Tim Oates, research director of Cambridge Assessment. He points out that, while teachers in England may look on Finland as some kind of education utopia, Finnish children are more regularly tested than English pupils. The difference is that in Finland, this testing is done with teacher approval: some of the assessments are even written by Finnish teacher associations.

And, according to a research report published by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), there is no measure of school accountability factored in. The report states: “While the Finns do not assess for school accountability purposes, they do an enormous amount of diagnostic or formative assessment at the classroom level.”

“Assessment measures can’t be valid for two things at the same time,” said Professor Wyse. “If you want to check up on school and teacher performance, you use different types of measures, processes and analyses from if you want to check up on pupils’ performance.”


First For maths and science

Next month, ResearchED, which helps teachers to understand how research can make a difference in the classroom, will be holding its first event dealing specifically with maths and science. The event, on 11 June, will be held at the University of Oxford’s Mathematical Institute, and will include speakers, networking sessions and professional development opportunities.

New lab, new leader

The University College London (UCL) Knowledge Lab – formerly the London Knowledge Lab – has appointed a new director. The UCL Knowledge Lab is a new research centre with a mission to understand and develop digital technologies to support and transform education. Carey Jewitt, its new director, is a professor in education and technology. Her research interests are interdisciplinary digital research, study and design in education.

Learning through play conference

The role of playfulness within teaching, as well as the way that child development influences what goes on in the classroom, will be among the topics covered during a conference on early-years and primary education. Education researchers from the universities of Sheffield, Cardiff and Chester will join those from the University College London Institute of Education for the one-day conference, to be held in London on 13 June.

Research round-up

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