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Exam stress

As we hurtle towards the main test and exam season, the educational and general press has a plethora of stories around the good, the bad and the ugly of summative assessment and the accountability systems that sit alongside it. Concerns for children’s mental health, the erosion of a broad and balanced curriculum, teachers ‘cheating’ and parents boycotting are all much discussed. People working in or with schools know that this isn’t all just media speculation.

In a system where so much of the effectiveness, of both school leaders and classroom teachers is judged on the basis of high-stakes tests, it is no surprise that increasing amounts of test preparation are being undertaken within our schools. Both teachers and school leaders will probably recognise this all too familiar spiral; if your results have been good, you don’t want standards to slip so keep drilling pupils on those tests; if your results haven’t been good then the natural conclusion to this is often to spend more time on test preparation in those crucial testing years and increasingly this is being pushed down into lower years as well.

On entry to secondary school, many children are subjected to further testing as teachers don’t find the end of KS2 results useful in summarising pupils’ actual abilities. Teachers in junior schools often struggled to demonstrate progress on the KS1 results that their year 3s arrive with. Is it that the teachers in the prior key stages to us are all bad at teaching but good at cheating, or is it simply that we have got better and better at preparing children for the test- perhaps at detriment to their actual learning?

A 2015 survey by the ‘think and action tank’ LKMco, found that 93% of people said an important part of their decision to go into teaching was ‘Making a difference to pupils’ lives’. While it’s no doubt that certain examinations will have some impact on the future lives of young people, on the whole nobody’s life is directly enriched by their ability to pass a particular test.

As education professionals, we know that a focus on tests isn’t the way that things should be working; it isn’t what’s best for the children and for us! Yet it’s common practice, perhaps because we’re too nervous to stop or perhaps because there’s pressure from above that this is what we must do. But is the tide turning? Is there anything that could give us the confidence to make the change so that our schools no longer feel like ‘exam factories’?

High-profile Ofsted figures, have started to give indications that they recognise that a focus on tests and exams can be detrimental. They have an ongoing research project looking at the implementation of curricula within schools and have recognised that while exams and tests play a role in raising standards, they also have a detrimental impact.

In relation to the research, Ofsted chief Amanda Spielman stated: “School leaders need to recognise how easy it is to focus on the performance of the school and lose sight of the pupil. I acknowledge that inspection may well have helped to tip this balance in the past.” https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/hmcis-commentary-october-2017

For primary schools, she highlighted that a focus on tests leads to a narrowing of the primary curriculum as schools focus on test-taking skills rather than the learning that the test should be testing. She also mentions the concerns of parents that test preparation reduces teaching time in foundation subjects. For secondary school, she noted that they are seeing a reduction in KS3. GCSE preparation encroaches on these years resulting in early dropping of subjects that provide richness to an education.

A very recent article in the TES, quoted Andreas Schleicher, the PISA boss, as saying that the focus on tests in England is detrimental to pupils and is causing them to ‘lose ground’ to pupils from the Far East. He asserts that a focus on tests not only narrows the curriculum and decreases learning but fails to prepare children for the jobs of the future which will require ever more complex thinking skills.

“For easy tasks, memorisation is quite helpful – drill, rote learning and so on works quite well for basic things. But as tasks get more complex, actually memorisation is not just neutral, it’s actually hindering effective learning…The kind of things that are easy to teach, easy to test, are precisely the kind of things that are also easy to digitise.”

In April last year, the House of Commons Select Committee on Primary Assessment stated that

“the high stakes system can negatively impact teaching and learning, leading to narrowing of the curriculum and ‘teaching to the test’, as well as affecting teacher and pupil wellbeing. The stakes should be lowered at primary school in order to combat some of these negative impacts.”

So, although opinion may be changing, we do currently still have to work within the system and ensure our pupils attain appropriate results. In later blogs in this series, we’ll start looking at research evidence and good practice around how to achieve this without excessive test preparation. We’ll take a look at how schools can start to think about their curriculum in a different way- enriching children’s learning while having an indirect impact on test results and how this can be supported by effective formative and summative assessment.

Do you have something to say on this issue? We’d be particularly interested in hearing from teachers who think their school is getting it right and would like to share their good practise so please get in touch.

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