Nick Gibb, England’s school minister, seems to have breathed new life into the debate about exam stress. His view appears to be that if children sit more exams, they’ll get used to them and will find them less stressful. I have sympathy for this position. By normalising the taking of tests, they become just another one of those things we do.
As I’ve argued before, many things worth doing in life are stressful and we don’t generally approach this issue by removing those things. Instead, we look for strategies to manage and overcome the stress of these situations.
However, Twitter has reacted to Gibb’s comments in a predictable way and Gibb has been condemned. Won’t somebody think of children’s mental health?
Firstly, it’s important to note the wider context of this discussion. Mental health is one line of argument that educational progressivists have resorted to in recent times to push their agenda. The blogger, Old Andrew, has done a good job of documenting these arguments. Andrew also identifies political correctness and a free market conspiracy ‘argument’ i.e. “You are a far-right, neoliberal, neoconservative, neocolonial white male!” I would also add attempts to enforce progressivism through disability legislation to Andrew’s list.
So in a sense, the discussion about exams, and tests more generally, becomes a proxy war. And we lose something important in the process.
We really need to discuss the quality of any tests and exams that we give, and the stakes attached to those exams. In the US, standardised testing has mushroomed since the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Eric Kalenze has argued that these tests are high stakes for schools and teachers but low stakes for students. For instance, these assessments have been used to try to introduce performance related pay. But such ideas are flawed because teacher performance is essentially unreliable.
E. D. Hirsch exposes another flaw in the reading component of these tests. He argues that they have caused teachers to focus on test preparation, with perverse consequences. Out goes geography, history and science and in comes hours of mindless practice at making inferences, as if this is a skill that can be trained, whereas it’s actually knowledge of things like geography, history and science that will have the largest long-term impact on reading.
This tendency for high stakes assessments to wash back and distort the teaching process is everywhere. We certainly see this with NAPLAN in Australia. Yes, there is value in practicing exam-style questions as you approach an exam, but you can’t learn the fundamentals of a subject this way. Repeated practice testing has a place, but teachers need to have a clear theory of assessment to inform what these tests should look like.
So I would argue that the debate about testing misses out these important points about test quality and the stakes we attach to tests. Yes, students need some rehearsal for big assessments. But day-to-day teaching may be improved with lots of high quality, low stakes testing and that’s the argument that needs to be made.