Friday, September 7, 2018

Testing Our Children Towards Mediocrity

In Australia, we have adopted a number of school-wide tests, of which NAPLAN is just one. NAPLAN does three-yearly sample assessments in science, literacy, civics and citizenship, and also information and communication technology (ICT). This is done for grades 3, 5, 7, & 9. To quote government documents, NAPLAN is designed to test "... the sorts of skills that are essential for every child to progress through school and life, such as reading, writing, spelling and numeracy." The results have just been released, and as usual, we are castigating our schools and teachers for failing to teach well enough to the test (see HERE).

When we first started using NAPLAN, Australia was ranked highly in international assessments like PISA. But, as our education systems have increased the volume of testing with tools like NAPLAN, we have lost sight of their original purpose.
They were meant to provide advice to teachers and systems, about the areas of curriculum where students need additional help; they were never meant to be the key driver of pedagogy and classroom practice. It is clear now that teachers have (not surprisingly) increasingly taught to the test. But who could blame them!
Over the last 10 years our results in the international PISA assessments have been dropping in some areas. I believe that this, at least in part, is due to tests like NAPLAN shaping the curriculum and methods that teachers use. Such 'shaping' is inevitable in an environment of constant system-wide testing. I believe that this pressure shapes behaviour and priorities, as teachers and principals contemplate and predict what might be in the test. Is this the best we can do? Is the key goal of education to teach content in order to pass a test, devised by people who don't know the specific needs and background of the children from varied communities? I believe that the answer is no! 

Tests like NAPLAN are what assessment experts call summative assessment tools. They are designed to assess in objective ways what children know and don't know, as well as what they can and cannot do. They assess overall student achievements, monitor system wide student progress, identify areas of under and over performance, assess skills development, and in some cases, give direction guidance in relation to curriculum content.
But there is a problem with such system wide summative approaches. Key among these weaknesses is that no matter how hard you try to ensure that such tests are used to inform classroom pedagogy and right choices with curriculum content and skills development, teachers end up simply teaching to the test!
This type of assessment involves someone other than the teacher, to set a test that is designed to evaluate student learning at the end of a period of time, or a course of work. In summative assessment, performance is evaluated against a specific standard that is decided by people other than the teachers who knows the students.

The challenge for schools and their teachers is that they end up being criticized if the school 'under performs'. So, they try make sure that they teach to the test next time. Even worse, some parents send their children off to additional classes after school to be better equipped for the test. Practice tests abound in shops. We then end up in an endless cycle of teaching our students with one major purpose; to do well on tests. What's lost in such a vicious cycle is any sense of formative assessment of children by their teachers. The goal of formative assessment sets out to monitor student learning and provide feedback that teachers can then use to improve their teaching, and to help their students to improve their learning. Worse still, we lose sight of the overall key aim of education to shape the character of our students. School education was never meant to be a skill factory, it was meant to serve as a safe place where children could grow in knowledge, skills, human virtues and capabilities that would allow them to live and cope with life.

Above: My one-teacher school (guest teacher)
As a young primary school teacher, I was free of the ongoing incessant use of summative state-wide assessment. And so, I was free to use my own formative assessment strategies that were tailored to assess my students learning. Of course, I used lots of informal observation as well. I did this not just for individuals who had learning problems, but also for groups of learners of similar abilities, and also for my class as a whole. My observations and formative assessment occurred in subjects across the curriculum, including reading and writing, spelling, mathematics, social sciences, science and more. As a result, my students improved and made significant progress. In the case of students with specific weaknesses I devised my own activities and programs to help them improve. I'd then assess their progress and reassess my methods in light of their progress or lack of it. I used varied instruction programs and methods for up to four ability groups in my regular classes. I taught even more when in a one-teacher rural school with up to 31 students in the one room across grades Kindergarten to Grade 6. Freed from the need to teach to a national test, I was able to concentrate on my students as learners in many varied ways. But as well, I would administer key summative tests in areas like reading, spelling and maths on a regular basis, simply to see whether my students were reaching age related standards.

Overall, my 'formative' assessment was designed to help me teach so that students grew in skills and knowledge, as well as being equipped for life. Would they grow up with positive self esteem, could they cope with failure? Did they have human qualities of humility, kindness, a desire to serve and so on. Teachers today spend so much time testing, I wonder how they find time to know their students well enough to help shape them as people. My simple point is that if we over use summative testing regimes, we end up with many unintended consequences that do little to help children grow as learners. 

How can we stop this nonsense?

Step 1 - If we must have central system wide curricula, then let's involve the best of our teachers at every grade level in curriculum development. Let's always inform the process of review with the work of our best teachers. And let's limit it as much as possible.
Step 2 - Help teachers to understand thew role of formative assessment and identify the best of our practitioners to teach other teachers how to use formative approaches to grow and shape their students as learners and people.
Step 3 - Only use summative assessment regimes to inform system wide performance and to guide curriculum content, not to dictate and shape the methods and pedagogy of individual teachers. 
Step 4 - Offer additional professional development courses and ensure that there are expert teachers in every school, who help to equip colleagues with pedagogies that will assist them to grow children as learners and people. 
Step 5 - Treat teachers as professionals and stop the constant abuse of schools by politicians, media and the community at large.
Step 6 - Lets reward teachers for success in helping all of their students to grow as learners, not against external measures, but in relation to the individual growth and achievement of their students.