Testing children

I grew up with a school system (not in the UK) in which testing from early on was a normal part of the school day however none of it was to measure the school or the teachers as far as we knew – it was all done as part of the overall pedagogy – the teachers used short tests to gauge how much we had grasped concepts, facts or ideas. We had comprehension tests in English lessons, short maths tests in maths lessons (including some speed tests), times tables (which we recited in class together regularly – some rote learning was helpful for being able to do sums faster) and spelling tests (we took the list of words home to practice and did the test the next day).

We learned from an early age to cope with a small amount of ‘test’ stress in class on an almost daily basis though certainly the first 2 years at school largely concentrated on learning by playing (among all the toys and educational games we used I remember a much loved dolls house in the classroom on my first year and another dolls house in my second year classroom). From about my fourth year at school we had mid and end of year examinations in several subjects – they were short at that age, as we got older they got longer. We had to pass the exams to pass the year and occasionally some children were kept back to repeat the year (this was South African state education during apartheid).

By secondary school we were well versed in testing and examinations. I cannot say we loved it – we did not – though sometimes testing was done in games which were fun, however because they were well designed, properly thought out for the level of material we were covering it did not feel to a child of average intelligence that they were out to trip us up or worse being used to measure our teachers and potentially penalize our school (maybe they were used in this way but we were not aware of it) – teachers encouraged us to work hard and revise for examinations – we accepted this as normal.  Teaching to the test was not an issue as testing was just one aspect of many ways our teachers were assessing our understanding (class discussions, taking it in turns to read passages aloud, group activities and writing summaries of topics were some of the other ways they were quietly observing and assessing us in a normal school day and our school reports reflected their observations as well as test scores).  We had an enormous variety of different types of learning activities including film shows, overhead projector pictures and diagrams, art and music classes, games and physical education, so the more mundane activities were interspersed with exciting ones.  We learned how to interrogate the available information, discuss it and think about implications.  Our teachers were treated as professionals who had been trained to teach children according to the best methods of the time and their professionalism was recognised and accepted by the government.

I cannot say how those tests and examinations were received by children with dyslexia or visual impairment.  We did not have any blind children in our school as all blind, deaf, severely physically or cognitively disabled children were sent to special schools – they were not integrated into mainstream schools.  I do recall a friend in our class who was disabled with a heart problem (a hole in her heart), her strength was not sufficient for her to participate in sports however she had a bright mind and kept up with classwork as far as I could tell.  There probably were some dyslexic children in the school and I do not know what, if anything, was done to help them, it wasn’t something I was particularly aware of then.  Some people had more trouble with spelling or writing than I did – possibly they were dyslexic however most of the teachers I experienced treated struggling children kindly and did not make an example of them (there were exceptions – and they were invariably teachers I disliked for their meanness).

I realise that I was privileged in the height of the apartheid era – this was state education for white children whereas our black neighbours had a narrower curriculum, less funding for their schools (therefore less variety and fewer resources) and some teachers who may not have had the best training, though I’m sure their dedication to their pupils would have been just as strong as the care most of my teachers gave us.  Those children will have encountered regular testing too and despite all the additional difficulties they faced they worked hard to achieve something at school, though there was a distinct difference between pass rates at white and black schools at that time.

The current anguish about SATS tests in primary schools in the UK is a sad indictment of a series of Governments who have sought to interfere with the professional judgement of the teaching profession, for ideological rather than sound pedagogical reasons.  Imposing unexpectedly harder tests on children who are not accustomed to that style of teaching and learning is cruel and wrong.  Poorly constructed tests such as the current SATS and SPaG are not properly integrated into the curriculum and ignore the professional judgement of teachers who know their children best.  The results of SATS should not be taken in isolation of the rounded picture of each child which the teachers have from observation and daily teaching. But unfortunately they’re used to judge teachers and schools and are not a fair indication of children’s learning.  The SATS which my younger daughter did at the end of Year 6 were not used by her secondary school when she started Year 7 – they immediately tested the children again themselves.  Their sole purpose seems to be for Government league tables.

Narrowing the secondary curriculum to focus only on STEM subjects to the detriment of Art, Music, Drama and vocational subjects which are known to help the understanding of Science, Maths and Technology subjects is appallingly short-sighted (unless it is a deliberate ploy to produce a generation of children who cannot think for themselves and do not appreciate culture) – my younger daughter is experiencing this narrowed curriculum in secondary school, comparing her Year 7 school subject choices and timetable with those enjoyed by her elder sister 8 years ago is sobering.  We are doing our best to give her as much music and art in her extramural activities as possible, but not every parent has the means to afford music or art or drama or dancing or gym lessons or cultural outings, so reducing these in school time is a travesty.

Tests and examinations done properly by professionals who understand how children learn have a place in the overall mix of assessment that can be used to measure learning.  Done badly, in a poor attempt to ‘improve standards’, punitive testing which relies on learning and remembering facts without necessarily understanding them will cause long term lasting damage to many children, discouraging them and destroying their enjoyment of learning, reading and writing.  It will be very difficult, time consuming and expensive to repair the damage.