Sunday, May 18, 2008

Testing times

Children in English schools are tested a lot, perhaps to destruction. They are tested very regularly and the results spewed out in variously misleading league tables. Later on in the school system the modularised AS and A2 levels means that students are tested extremely regularly in the 16-18 age range. They get very good at taking these tests, at least the ones I see at Cambridge admissions interviews do. But it is not always the case that the strategy the smart ones adopt to get the highest AS and A2 scores is the best strategy to adopt when it comes to less defined university courses. A student who has worked out that they should find out what they need to know and what the examiners will gives ticks for is not always well suited to the more exploratory undergraduate courses.

That's later on in school careers. But younger children are tested a lot too. We are only now beginning to see the effects this has first- (well, second-) hand: our older daughter is 6 and now is having regular spelling tests (and perhaps other tests too; it's not always easy to work out precisely what she did at school because her reports are a bit variable...) She is finding it very stressful; not because she can't do it, but because she can. In fact, I am increasingly concerned that it is actively working against her enjoying learning to read. She gets very anxious about whether she has prepared well enough or long enough for the test. And she also gets upset if she feels the tests are boring and too easy. She's even upset for her friends if they don't get it all right: she worries about them and they are clearly upset if they are evidently not getting things all right.

And she is 6, for Pete's sake! S and I may be slightly pushy parents but we don't bang on about the need to get full marks in crappy spelling tests all the time, for sure. Right now, in fact, we spend much more time trying to say that the tests aren't important and she is doing fine, enjoying reading and learning to read more. I can't remember being 6 very well at all, but I'm pretty sure that there wasn't such an emphasis in the school on these kinds of quantifiable 'learning outcomes'. It's not the teachers' fault (her teacher is excellent and is very perceptive); it's not the school's fault (we're very happy with it). But something has gone wrong in the way we have chosen to assess schools. The method of evaluation has determined an unfortunately teleological method and it seems to be having negative psychological (and, I suspect, educational) effects.

No comments: