Testing 7 year olds

In my last article I talked about the wholesale changes the Government is making to GCSE and assessment of 16 year olds. More recently we have heard that the Government might decide to start testing our 7 year olds. Most people in education welcomed the withdrawal of testing of 7 year olds a few years ago and would not support their reintroduction now.

But what about rigour?

We often hear government talk about ‘rigour’ and promoting the idea that education, teaching and assessment should all be more ‘rigorous’. I have never been sure why the government feels education should be more rigorous – I do not recall anyone (teachers, parents or industry) saying that it needed to be. There are various definitions of the word ‘rigorous’ including ‘harsh’, ‘severe’ and ‘unrelenting’. In my view, when the government talks about tests being more rigorous, they basically mean ‘harder’. The thinking seems to be that if you make the test harder then overall educational standards will rise. Surely, if you make the test harder, you just build more failure into the system?

Do we learn by being tested?

Clearly testing pupils’ knowledge and understanding as you go along is sensible; it gives the teacher an idea of what has been learned and what remains unclear. It also motivates children to work towards a moment in time when they are expected to ‘know’ and prove that they ‘know’. That is common sense, but common sense goes out of the window when testing is over emphasised. If we use tests to make sweeping judgements about teachers and schools, then the balance between spending time engaged in learning and preparing for the test gets distorted. Instead of leaving revision and exam practice to the end of the course, teachers start lesson 1 with, ‘This is what you need to know to pass the test’. Opportunities for wider exploration, for independent thinking and sheer enjoyment are swallowed up by the need to pass the test. By putting too much emphasis on testing we are valuing the things we can measure, rather than measuring the things we value.

Do we have the right curriculum?

The curriculum taught in schools is often criticised as not properly preparing young people for the world of work, or indeed, life in general. I have some sympathy with that view. For me skills and attributes such as charm, self-confidence, perseverance, empathy, self-knowledge and a keen sense of morality are just as important as being able to calculate the area under a curve or interpret a cryptic poem. But the over-emphasis on testing, especially in English and Maths, forces schools to play down the ‘life skills’ element of education in favour of gaining the grades needed to prove the pupils ‘know’ and the teachers can ‘teach’.

What do you ask a young person?

I hope that when you meet a child or young person you won’t always fall into trap of asking them what grades they expect as they head for the next end-of-key-stage tests set by government; instead I hope you will ask them if they are a good friend, and about what they have been doing outside the classroom to gain personal and life-enhancing experiences. Show them the importance of charm and humour, and share your experiences of the rewards you gained by being determined and persistent. The government may want us to believe that testing should lie at the heart of education, but we don’t all have to buy into that idea.