What mistakes are we making with primary assessment?

A BBC news article today published statistics from a poll carried out by market research firm Opinion Matters. It highlighted the pressures felt by primary school children in the United Kingdom as they approach their end of Key Stage 2 assessments.
But what exactly are we getting wrong about assessment?

Firstly, let’s take a look at some of the data that made the headlines in today’s article about primary assessment.

In a survey of 1,000 children 8 had smoked on the morning of their Key Stage 2 assessment. I suspect probably the same eight may have smoked on other mornings too and the assessment was not the pressure that caused the child to light up a cigarette.

In the same survey, 37 pupils had eaten chocolate on the morning of the assessments. Quite what relevance this has I’m not sure but the media drive for healthy eating in schools will I’m sure encourage some people to conclude exams make children eat chocolate and are therefore bad.

55% feared that bad results in exams could affect their future.

This then is the message that made the breakfast television news. 55% of children fear that doing badly in exams may affect their future. But surely that is no bad thing that students understand that exam success creates a greater range of opportunities in life and exam failure can restrict life choices? This is a fact. One of the principle purposes in exams is to find out what a student can do; to assess their competence in a given field. This is used eventually to guide young people into making effective career decisions. The more worrying fact about this Opinion Matters poll is that of the 1,000 students asked whether doing badly in exams may affect their future 450 students felt it wouldn’t. Nearly half the students, by the time they reach the end of the primary phase of their education, do not realise that exam success is an important part of future life. These students have had over half of the education they will receive to prepare them for examinations at 16 years old, examinations that will decide their future. Yet, they don’t realise the importance of examination performance. Is this an arrogance on their behalf with regard to the importance of education?

Perhaps instead it reflects the message we send young people about examinations in school. Certainly sharing examination results is important and parents should be able to make value judgements on the effectiveness of the schools available within their area. However, in an era when the primary function of examinations is to judge and grade schools in league tables is it any wander that children are confused about the purpose of examinations? The reason, I would suggest, that student don’t feel examination results are important in their future life is that they have grown up in a culture where the primary purpose of examinations is to judge the effectiveness of schools.

We need to get back to communicating clearly that examination results affect life choices. Passing more examinations at a higher level gives students greater opportunities when they finish school. Students need a folder of certificates when they go out into the workplace. A recognition of what they can do an understand.

We must beware of emotive language in reporting opinion polls that suggest examinations are damaging the health of our young people. Instead of making the examination itself the focus of our criticism we should look to the pressure being put on schools to achieve results, not for the sake of the children in the school, but for the sake of the teachers and managers of the school. The aspect that needs attention here is that children a significant minority of pupils (45%) have a disconnect between doing well in school and doing well in later life. This is the issue that needs addressing and the best way to address it is to revitalise the core purpose of schools, including the examinations that take place in those schools. The core purpose of schools is educating young people. Examinations should be about rewarding young people with a recognition of their skills and understanding. That way everybody will realise by the end of primary education that examinations are important. They may feel nerves on the day. You may have anxieties that need supporting by effective parenting and caring schools but ultimately, examinations matter.

What we need to do in schools is prepare children for examinations with regular testing. Make testing a part of the culture of education. Not national tests that are used as a stick for beating teachers and school but tests that form part of the fabric of the school day. Tests that encourage pupils to understand how to study independently. Tests that celebrate success of students and their learning. Testing is here to stay and today’s news surroundingĀ the anxiety of pupils sitting Key Stage 2 assessments shouldn’t be interpreted as “testing is bad”, more, “the way we test needs improving”.

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