We forget two important points when we debate the stress of testing

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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.


6 Comments on “We forget two important points when we debate the stress of testing”

  1. Tom Burkard says:

    I should have added that Nick is already familiar with our plans for routine tests–they were a key feature of our free school project, and he took a keen interest in it when he’d been displaced as schools minister by David Laws.

  2. Mitch says:

    Agree with pretty much everything.
    I use a majority of weight towards tests because they are the most valid and reliable form of assessment. When students hardly even have a weekly quiz let alone topic tests or, heaven forbid, semester exams in primary school or early high school when things are so more low stakes, is it any shock that they cause stress when they are high stakes?
    I also don’t see much point in practising for NAPLAN outside some sample practice of how it is put together, types of questions etc. or some targeted remedial.
    I can acknowledge and question the validity and measurement error in NAPLAN and not be calling for the end of it. I can acknowledge that the risk of NAPLAN is narrowing the curriculum while also acknowledging that it is pretty much the most important aspect of education so we should be doing standardised testing of it.

  3. Iain Murphy says:

    Testing is great if the goal is teaching kids how to do tests. We need to be careful of their function.
    1. Many tests are the product of the education industry creating an easy form of assessment that links to their supplies (Chapter or NAPLAN/SAT). Pick up most textbooks and it’s highly repetitive junk in Maths at the moment.

    2. The use of multiple choice tests in large groups over long time periods like NAPLAN are useless. This observation was made by a professor in America who is credited with creating them. Saying that they can be incredibly powerful to check understanding immediately after practicing new skills if the answers provided give feedback on likely errors for future instruction.

    3. Real life has tests but rarely do they involve isolation of knowledge or contacts so why do we enforce this in classes. The psychology effects of tests on many students can be addressed by looking at these (dangerous to say differentiation but good teachers get results). Some analogy about learning to swim in the deep end seems right here.

    4. Too often tests are a tool for conformity rather a means of exploring understanding. How often are tests the end of a topic with no return to difficulties faced by the students?

    Not suggesting that any of this applies to the followers of this blog but they are observations of the teaching cohort and need to be addressed.

    • Mitch says:

      Na, tests have long been the most effective, valid and consistent form of assessment. Sure, you can criticise a test and question whether it is measuring the right proxy, I do, but to say all they do is make you better at tests is objectively wrong.
      1. of course MC tests were for easy, fast and cheap marking. They have known problems and are not as good as short response. I have never come across a maths textbook that gets a tick for everything (there is always something sub par) but in general the pacing and repetition is about right even when I do them.
      2. No offence I don’t know your point here, a reference??
      3. I dislike this argument. One of the best arguments I have heard is that we are trying to assess learning, learning involves a change in long term memory and isolated tests measure that more effectively.
      4. tests can have many purposes. Formative assessment seems to be very effective but there is nothing wrong with them as summative assessment.

  4. Of course – “high stakes” almost inevitably means “low reliability”. The switch from few high-stakes tests to many relatively low-stakes tests is at the heart of my argument in “Why Curriculum Matters” – https://edtechnow.net/2017/11/20/curriculum-matters/.

    But it is not quite so easy as just flicking a switch.

    With an emphasis on the single high-stakes test, you get judged on how well you did the task (singular) – or at least a small set of tasks whose results are rolled-up according to predetermined rules. Getting an A in Maths means getting an A in the Maths exam.

    If you switch to many tests, administered regularly, you need to aggregate data from many tasks that are aligned to similar learning objectives. In other words, you are can no longer be judged on how well you did on the task but on how well you did on the objective, as inferred from a number of different tasks that are aligned to that objective.

    This is a very significant change of assessment methodology, which depends on:

    a) a return to a system of criterion referencing (but properly devised this time)
    b) digital analytics systems that can track, aggregate and corroborate data from multiple tasks.

    In general, these two necessary prerequisites run contrary to the arguments currently being put forward by the educational traditionalists. And yet none of them seems to be able to come up with a half-way coherent justification of their position.

    Perhaps you can help, Greg?

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