Testing and Re-testing . . . and forgetting the individual child

The news today that an incoming Conservative government would re-test children who “fail” their Year 6 SATs has shocked educators who may not have believed politicians could conjure up yet more preposterous and inappropriate policies.

http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/apr/07/tories-resits-pupils-fail-end-primary-school-exams-key-stage-2

Sadly experience tells us they are capable of the most bizarre, the most contentious and the most ill-informed policies that totally disregard our understanding of how children learn and how they see themselves when they are described as failures.

PotentialSATs fail

One of our most-read and ‘favourited’ tweets this morning says this:

“It’s time everyone understood that level 3A in English and Maths is where most adults operate in daily life. Far from failure.”

We’ve talked about this before but it seems pertinent to return to this matter with some urgency.

There are a multitude of reasons why children may not attain a Level Four in a timed test by the end of Key Stage Two.

For example,

  • They have significant or specific learning difficulties.
  • They have the misfortune to be born into an education system that has never come to terms with fact that summer-born children, on the whole, don’t do as well as those who are born between September and December.
  • Children learn at different rates and at different times.
  • They have entered our school system with little or no command of the English language, and in some cases with no previous experience of formal schooling, sometimes with no English used at home.
  • There are too many children in their class, and too little individual attention.
  • They have a personal crisis on the day of the test.
  • Their home life isn’t conducive to learning and is bereft of books, computers, etc.
  • They have other skills, other intelligences, other interests (that may surpass those of their classmates but are deemed as insignificant)
  • They freeze in test situations.

We could continue, but the important point to reiterate is this.

These are children. They are individuals. They are NOT numbers. They have a life and an experience unique to them, and they learn at different rates from the children sitting next to them – for some or all of the above reasons.

Prisoner

And those who don’t achieve a Level 4 or a test “pass” at the end of their primary education are NOT failures. They are far from being ‘failures’, and yet their entire experience of continuous ‘practice’ tests as well as the actual tests very often makes them feel branded as failures. Is this what we want for our children?

By all means continue to monitor and assess children’s progress and levels of achievement throughout Year 7 – this is to be expected. But why put them through yet more stressful timed tests? Do we really believe this policy is going to improve their chances of getting better grades at the age of 16? (Leave aside here the arguments for getting rid of high stakes testing at the age of 16+ now that full-time education will take place till the age of 18.)

As we pointed out in our tweet, most adults for most of their daily lives function at Level 3 in maths and English. They survive. They manage. Of course we want children to be as literate and numerate as is possible, but why does there have to be such a stringent cut-off point at the age of eleven that wholly disregards the FACT that young people learn at different rates according to a variety of determining factors? And what exactly do we expect to happen to these ‘failures’ as they move through another seven years of full time education? Is it not reasonable to suppose they will move up to levels 5 and 6 and beyond in the fullness of time – which is to say considerably above the functional levels of literacy and numeracy that adults generally use?

There are many children who are “boosted” and “coached” and sometimes pressurised and bullied to go above and beyond their natural rate of progress to achieve a Level 4 by the end of Key Stage Two – often at the cost of a broad and rich curriculum, together with excessive amounts of homework.

Children learning

We need to see children engaged in their learning at a pace that is right and challenging for them. We don’t need children to achieve levels of test passing that have only been attained through excessive pressure and a bombardment of information which they struggle to retain because they’re disengaged from proper learning.

The fact is, nobody who has taught in a primary school would come up with this ludicrous policy. Anyone who has had the pleasure of teaching a group of ten and eleven year olds knows just how individual each and every one of them is, and it’s the job of the primary teacher to engage them in learning and excite them about learning – mindful of their needs, their abilities, their challenges and their interests.

It’s not the job of a primary teacher nor a politician nor a secondary school teacher to label a child as a failure or an under-achiever. It’s sickening. Of course some children under-attain in comparison with their peers – and this will always be the case. We should be much more concerned about children who are demoralised and turning away from learning and from the pursuit of academic achievement by the age of eleven as a result of this destructive regime of high-stakes testing – which as we all know is mainly in existence as a “measure” of how well schools and teachers are “performing”.

Politicians love statistics

Stats and Data

Here’s another erroneous statement from our current Secretary of State for Education.

“Under Labour, one in three children left primary school unable to read, write and add up properly. Thanks to our reforms and teachers’ hard work, we’ve seen that fall to just one in five.”

Wrong, Ms Morgan.

One in three or five children didn’t leave primary schools “unable to read, write and add up properly”. The large majority of these children – and we’re guessing this equates to about 97% of them for the stats loving folk – left primary school able to read and write but not able to attain the target examination scores for the many reasons mentioned above.

They are NOT unable to read. Fact.

Tristram Hunt uses another statistic to justify his perfectly appropriate desire for every child to be taught by a qualified teacher:

“On their watch, 1.6 million pupils are being educated in schools that are less than good. And, as a result of David Cameron’s unqualified teachers’ policy, more than 400,000 pupils are being taught by unqualified teachers.”

That’s fine, Tristram, but one has to remember that the judgement process that declares a school to be “less than good” is deeply flawed and these statistics don’t account for some excellent teaching that takes place within schools that are deemed a failure or are given a notice to improve by Ofsted.

Statistics can provide indications, and everyone knows they’re open to interpretation, yet they’re read as definitive and accurate when in so many cases they don’t tell the entire story.

Whilst we agree that qualified teachers are needed to educate our children, we don’t agree that when taught by qualified teachers 100% of children will necessarily “pass” an end of key stage test – for the many reasons mentioned above.

Children are individuals and have individual rates of learning. Fact.

In the Guardian’s article today Russell Hobby – General Secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers – makes a very apposite statement. He says of the proposed policy to re-test Year 6 children who “fail” their SATs.

“[It’s] a threadbare approach, that ‘if it moves, test it’ . . . This policy has confused teaching and testing, and thinks that tests improve teaching.”

Therein lies the fundamental issue. Teaching is not testing. Testing is not teaching.

This is something that politicians don’t seem to understand, despite the fact that many of them have children of their own and can see precisely how different they are, regardless of having similar inputs and experiences.

All good teachers “diagnose” and assess on a daily basis. It’s called formative assessment and is far more useful than a government imposed set of tests that quantify and categorise young people as being successful or a failure. Teachers use these diagnostics to help them to teach each individual child according to individual needs, and every teacher of worth encourages children to learn beyond their current level – whatever that level may be.

It’s astonishing that the Conservative party could think this policy proposal is a vote-winner. It’s even more astonishing that they think they understand teaching and learning better than education professionals, and yet we continue to have them and not educators determining the education process.

As Christine Blower of the NUT says, the government continuously claims to give autonomy to schools and then imposes tests and ludicrous policies which cause schools to teach to tests because they are judged on the outcomes of those tests and not on an ability to give a holistic and appropriate education to the individual children within their school.

Let me use my teacher voice

If we listen to the voices of teachers – to qualified, experienced and expert professionals – we may just get intelligent education policies and a system which meets the needs of the very people that we are there to serve – the children.

If we listen to the voices of the profession we might just get policies and practices that cause teachers to stay in the profession for a lifetime, with high job satisfaction, high morale and good health. Something has got to change.

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About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at https://3diassociates.wordpress.com/ or see our website at www.3diassociates.com.
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