UK moves closer to ending damaging tests in favor of teacher judgement

February 16, 2009 at 8:47 am Leave a comment

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UK SCHOOLS are further ahead than most of their competitors in developing and using formative assessment, assessment for learning, in classrooms. But the pressures of traditional testing still appear to be holding back further progress.

In 2005 the UK’s chief of Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, Ken Boston, predicted that external summative tests for 11-year olds and 14-year olds will eventually be replaced by moderated teacher assessment, possibly by 2015. He said that teachers in England will one day be allowed to select tests for their pupils from a bank of assessment tasks and tests and choose when the tests should be taken.

Research focussing on a cohort of pupils over eight years, extending from before the introduction of national testing for seven-year-olds in the UK, has revealed that after the introduction of the external tests, teachers’ own classroom assessment became more summative.

Before the introduction of tests, pupils felt that teachers’ assessments helped their learning but they later noticed that their teachers increasingly focused on performance outcomes rather than learning processes. Pupils themselves began to adopt summative criteria in commenting on their own work.

Reporting on the findings, the pamphlet The Role of Teachers in the Assessment of Learning concludes that opportunities to help learning — and reduce the gap between higher and lower achieving children — are being missed.

The pamphlet has been produced by members of the influential UK Assessment Reform Group as part of the Assessment Systems for the Future Project funded by the Nuffield Foundation.

“Worse perhaps is the distorting effect on assessment for learning… Many (UK) schools give the impression of having implemented AfL when in reality the change in pedagogy that it requires has not taken place. This may happen,for example, when teachers feel constrained by external tests over which they have no control. As a result they are unlikely to give pupils a greater role in directing their learning, as is required in AfL, in order to develop the capacity to continue learning throughout life.

“The nature of classroom assessment is dictated by the tests.”

The report acknowledges that the use of teacher assessments for summative purposes is not without its problems. But, it adds, these problems need to be judged against “the ample evidence that a system based on tests is flawed”.

“Systems relying heavily on tests results are found wanting in several respects, particularly in their ability to give a dependable, that is, both valid and reliable, account of pupils’ learning… the negative consequences of summative assessment for learning and teaching can be minimised by more appropriate use of teachers’ judgements” it concludes. It adds:

❏ Testing-based assessment fails to provide information about the full range of educational outcomes that are needed in a world of rapid social and technological change and therefore does not encourage the development of these skills.These outcomes include higher-order thinking skills, the ability to adapt to changing circumstances, the understanding of how to learn, and the ability to work and learn collaboratively in groups as well as independently.

❏ It inhibits the development of formative assessment (or assessment for learning) which is proven to raise achievement levels and reduce the gap between higher and lower achieving pupils.

❏ The data it provides are less reliable than they are generally thought to be. For example it has been estimated that the key stage (KS) tests in England result in the wrong levels for at least a third of pupils at the end of KS2 and up to 40 per cent at the end of KS3.

❏ The weak reliability of tests means that unfair and incorrect decisions will be made about some pupils, affecting their progress both within and between schools and beyond school.

❏ There is no firm evidence to support the claims that testing boosts standards of achievement.

❏ It reduces some pupils’motivation for learning.

❏ It imposes stressful conditions that prevent some children from performing as well as they can.

❏ It encourages methods of teaching that promote shallow and superficial learning rather than deep conceptual understanding.

The authors also add the use of test results, from league tables to target setting, is “too simplistic”.

Much summative assessment restricts the range of learning outcomes that can be assessed and excludes many of the higher-level cognitive and communication skills and the ability to learn both independently and collaboratively. The high stakes attached to the results encourage teaching to the test and excessive practising of test-taking.

This can result in pupils being taught to pass tests even when they do not have the skills that are supposedly being tested.

A study commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) concluded that while drilling 11-year-olds to pass national tests is likely to boost results it may not help pupils’longer-term learning. The narrow range of learning outcomes assessed by tests contrasts with the broad view of learning goals reflected in the DfES Every Child Matters policy document.

The authors argue, it is crucial that assessment covers the learning that will be essential for young people who will live and work in a rapidly shrinking world and changing society. Two key sets of goals in any subject are:

❏ learning with understanding;
and

❏ understanding learning.

The first refers to the development of “big ideas” — concepts that can be applied in different contexts, enabling learners to understand a wide range of phenomena by identifying the essential links between different situations. Merely memorising facts or a fixed set of procedures does not help or a fixed set of procedures does not help young people to apply learning to a range of contexts.

The second set of goals relates to the development of awareness of the process of learning. It is widely recognised that ‘students cannot learn in school everything they will need to know in adult life’. School must therefore provide the skills, understanding and desire needed for lifelong learning. “Since what is assessed has a strong influence on what is taught and how it is taught, we must look critically at what is assessed. If the required outcomes are not included, then alternative methods of assessment are needed.”

❏ Testing can reduce the self-esteem of lower-achieving pupils and can make it harder to convince them that they can succeed in other tasks;

❏ Constant failure in practice tests demoralises some pupils and increases the gap between higher and lower achieving pupils;

❏ Test anxiety affects girls more than boys;

❏ Teaching methods may be restricted to what is necessary for passing tests (eg neglect of practical work).

Instead “the negative consequences of summative assessments may be minimized by giving teachers a greater role in assessing individual pupils” concludes the report.

Reports from the Assessment System for the Future project seminars can be found at: www.assessment-reform-group.org/ASF.html

A PiFactory review of the ARG’s earlier review of research on testing, Testing, Motivation and Learning is at The research gives testing an F.

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Entry filed under: Assessment + Grading, Testing, Thoughts from the classroom, What's on the PiFactory blog.... Tags: , , , .

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