One of PTE’s launch ‘Research Notes’, entitled ‘Why pupils benefit from assessment’, needs a little close analysis to unpick some of its assertions, however. It would quite interesting to find anyone involved in education who is explicitly against assessment (or excellence, for that matter) since assessment is an integral part of teaching: The mind boggles as to how it might be possible to teach if you did not assess whether children were learning as you went along. As with so many things in education, the devil is the detail naturally, and the Research Note seems to have skated over detail – and veered into unsubstantiated assertion - in its bid to make its argument.
Let’s start with the summary statements. PTE suggest that “Rigorous tests throughout school are important,” “Tests do not need to be frightening” and “The only exams that matter to pupils are those done at 16 and 18”.
Formative assessment is the jargon term used to describe those aspects of teaching which help children and teachers to identify what children have learned already, whilst helping teachers (and children) identify areas with which where students are struggling so that problems can be addressed immediately. Summative assessment includes “rigorous tests” (which require children to answer tests which include things which they will struggle to answer), and can include interviews, observations and project work designed to make judgements about a child’s position on some scale of achievement. Quizzes, in-class tests devised by teachers, and low stakes tests are important and they help children to learn and teachers to identify strengths and weaknesses.
As teachers and parents should know, administering testing is problematic, and the younger the children, the more problematic the issues. There are good reasons why we only begin to attach qualifications to tests at the age of 16, and why most of us recognise that making strong inferences using tests taken by young children should be treated with the utmost caution. Rigorous tests from the age of 16 are important, which is why they lead to qualifications, but before that there are better ways of assessing children.
PTE suggest that “Tests do not need to be frightening,” which is, once again, a truism with which anyone could agree. It would be interesting to hear of schools which have made tests ‘frightening’ for children. In their summary, however, PTE suggest that ‘In (primary) good schools, pupils often do not know that they are being examined,” whilst going on to say that ‘tests and exams should be tough’. These are interesting assertions, begging the question as what a ‘good school’ in this context might mean, and how young children in primary school might not notice being asked to do something they found extremely difficult.
Whilst children might not notice checks and informal testing in Key Stage 1, these are not generally ‘tough’ for most children. It would also be interesting to hear of a Year 6 class in England in which the pupils did not know that they were being examined. We know the effect of a tough test following the 2016 KS2 reading test, which left a number of 11 year-olds in tears. In most schools, every child knows KS2 SATs matter. Blaming schools for children’s awareness of tests is akin to blaming parents for making sure their children are aware of fire.
“The only exams that matter to pupils are those done at 16 and 18” is almost true. Some exams taken at 17 matter too. But yes, in essence, we only expect children to take personal responsibility for their examination results from the age of 16 for, once again, very good reason.
In its notes on Primary assessment, the PTE research note makes it clear that ‘rigorous tests’ are those held in ‘controlled conditions’. Again, it is hard to square this with the earlier claim that “In (primary) good schools, pupils often do not know that they are being examined.” The note goes on to infer that the only way to check a child’s phonetic awareness is via a test, which would be disputed by the vast majority of primary practitioners. It should be noted that the Year 1 Phonics screening check is explicitly not a test; it is a screening check used to support teaching whilst ensuring that schools are delivering phonics teaching in a way approved of by the government.
Somewhat strangely, in the Primary Assessment section the research note asks how often parents “feel truly confident that they are learning what their children need to get good grades at GCSE, to get a job or to get into a University.” Given that the implicit answer is ‘not very often’ it seems odd to then go on to suggest that “the (rigorous tests which children aren’t aware of taking) give parents advance notice so they can help their children improve.”
The Research Note suggests that tests are designed to tell parents “how well a school is doing”, and then goes on to say that “Of course, the quality of a school is not solely reflected in its ability to get results.” Tests apparently show whether “children are taught to write properly.” Writing hasn’t been assessed using written tests at any point in Primary school for quite some time.
By this point, the Note turns to out and out assertion, saying “When a student enters the adult world and is unemployable because they cannot write a CV or send a word-perfect email, they will stop being happy fast.” Neither of these things are subject in any way whatsoever to ‘rigorous tests’ in Primary schools. At this point, any suggestion of this Note being based on research seems to wither away.
It should be noted that that in both Key Stage 1 and 2 Primary Schools only test children’s knowledge in reading, mathematics and SPaG (Spelling, Grammar and Punctuation). Other areas of the curriculum - including writing - are not subject to regular high-stakes testing. The results of these high-stakes test have serious consequences for the school, and as a result nearly every school is forced to focus on a very limited domain of knowledge, particularly in Years 2 and 6.
This is what many of those who criticise the way in which high-stakes tests distort the Primary School experience for many children are campaigning about, not the general principle of assessment of children. Whilst the (over) simplified message from many parents and teachers is often ‘testing is bad’, this implicitly refers to the narrowing of the curriculum and the intense focus on a very limited aspect of learning which has been forced upon schools in the Primary phase. It would be surprising to find much if any support for the removal of any assessment whatsoever in Primary.
Moving on to the summary on Secondary assessment, the Research Note simply suggests that “all schools should follow the practice of the best schools and test pupils regularly.” Once again, this begs the question as to what the ‘best schools’ means in this context, and this factoid is asserted without substantiation. The distinction between low-stakes and high-stakes tests is ignored and, oddly for a note based on research, the PTE suggest that multiple choice questions in medical exams ‘may’ be used because of the Testing Effect; research should be able to give an answer one way or another, rather than simply suggest a possible explanation.
A full half of the argument for rigorous testing at Secondary level is that students should study ‘the most rigorous subjects possible’ and ‘the same subjects that those in private schools study’, which suggests that even the PTE can’t think of too many arguments for formal tests in controlled conditions in high schools. This might be because administering ‘rigorous tests’ in ‘controlled conditions’ is a time consuming process which most Secondary Schools do very infrequently, given the opportunity cost of formal testing.
In summary, this seems a very poor argument for increasing formal, rigorous, controlled condition testing into our schools. Assessment is a vital part of the art of teaching, and formal testing has its place. That place is from the age of 16, when young adults have a clear stake in the examination process and when we deem them to be mature enough to be judged on their own efforts. High stakes testing before 16 should be used sparingly, if at all, and parents and teachers should be aware of the well-known negative consequences of high-stakes testing.