Tests tests tests tests test

In Uncategorized on February 1, 2011 at 3:20 pm

This week I paid particular attention to the testing effect, I listened to an interesting talk on it (but i can’t find the blog of the person who spoke) and read about it on Blogs and in the New York Times. The idea of the testing effect is that regular tests help students learn and the nature of these tests can make a difference too, as the generation effect shows, if a student generates the answer rather than chooses one from a multiple choice they will remember better. another principle related to this is spaced effects which is principle 5 and says that the tests should not occur too soon after learning as it gives an illusion of knowing, which relates to problems in metacognition. A further principle related to the testing effect is principle 6 which talks about exam expectations and that ‘students benefit more from repeated testing when they expect a final exam’.

Reading all of this makes you wonder why there is often outcry that students in the uk are tested too much and as a class it is easy to think that really students should be tested more. However the testing referred to by the outcriers are standardised tests. Students are often just taught to prepare for a final exam  in order for schools to achieve on league tables. This is especially the case with SATs in primary school many schools teach very specifically for the SATs but offer no wider curriculum, leaving students at a loss.

In my quest to look at how tests are used in schools I learnt about the Finnish school system. They have the best school system in Europe according to OECDs PISA survey and yet they don’t do standardised tests until aged 17. This does not mean they do not get tested, the tests they do are internal and teachers and schools are trusted to do well without interference from the government in the form of standardised tests.

I believe that testing is great as a learning tool but the pressure of standardised tests is not, I think that it infringes too much on curriculum and that though ‘exam expectations’ appear to be important the expected exams should not take up as much of the curriculum as they do.

  1. I agree that the pressures of current standardised tests do not constitute a successful learning tool – instead encouraging ‘teaching to the test’ and leading to a lack of transferability of learning from classroom to real-world contexts. Yet I understand that without a form of standard test it would be difficult to account for and compare knowledge between individuals in a school, city or country. To overcome this problem, perhaps it would be possible to revise standardised tests to measure understanding of concepts and application to different contexts rather than merely knowledge of the facts. Consistent with principle 6, smaller tests could be used throughout the curriculum (similar to the tests used in the Finnish school system) to improve memory, with the standardised test at the end of the curriculum providing students with motivation during the smaller tests. This would ideally increase the teacher’s facilitation of student understanding, rather than teaching students what to expect on their exam. Such a system would provide details of student progress over time and allow comparisons between students on knowledge more applicable to real-world scenarios, such as comprehension and transference.

  2. That makes sense. And there has been progress with the year 9 SATs having been abolished and the primary school SATs going the same way. There does of course have to be a way to assess students so that comparisons can be made but it just seems to me that learning for GCSEs is just aimed towards the exams and nothing more and though I don’t feel it has done me any harm I dont know any different.

  3. I agree with the comments above, that regular testing should be implimented throughout the school curriculum and not just given at the end to take away some pressure and facilitate better learning. Another reason for the smaller, regular tests to be teacher set rather than standardized is related to the Goldilocks Priciple of teaching. I spoke about this in my talk on Monday and the principle is basically that children learn best when the work they are set is appropriate to the amount of existing knowlage they already have on the subject. If the smaller tests were teacher set then tests could be modefied for high, medium and low level learners, so they best suited the level the individual learnt at. This seems like a simple principle as no-one would give a GCSE paper to a 5 year old, they would give them something suited to their age, but if this were done within year groups then greater learning would be facilitated.

  4. I also agree with the above comments. I find that regular testing is a good way to learn because it means that information is regularly practiced. In agreement with principle 6 I think that it is still necessary to have a final exam because you are more likely to try to remember the information if you know that you will need it again, but I don’t think that as much weight should be placed on final exams because they are not the most accurate reflection of your knowledge. I agree with Emily’s point that tests should be revised to check understanding within a particular context, etc, and I wonder if this could be done effectively through better essay questions? In response to Jessica’s point about the Goldilock’s principle, I agree that smaller tests should be set by teachers because they better know the ability of the pupils. This point also made me wonder something. There are class sets within year groups, based on abilities in maths, English and science, and also, GCSE papers are/were set at three levels – foundation, intermediate, and higher tier. I was wondering if you think this could be the Government’s attempt at applying the Goldilock’s principle?

  5. Probably the biggest problem with the standardised testing as far as I can see is the ammount of pressure that hangs on it. Most students will turn into quivering wrecks when they hear the word ‘test’ purely because throughout their entire education a test has been portrayed as a ‘be all and end all’ experience on which their future success is based. There is so much evidence out there in favour of regular testing as a learning tool, which makes you wonder why it is used only as a measure. Tests should me used more for the purpose they seem to work best, learning. It has always struck me as counter-productive making students study for a one off exam on which a large proportion of their final grade is based. This can only encourage students to study purely how to pass the test, without really understanding or engaging with the information they ‘learn’. Surely the main purpose of education is to teach people useful information, not force them to remember specific facts which they will forget after a final exam because they only learnt them in order to pass, and now don’t need them. I completely agree with what you said about using tests as a learning tool, and not relying so much on standardised testing.

    I would argue that there is no real need for a for of standardised testing at all. I realise this is a bit controversial but it seems to me that the more we rely on standardised test grades, league tables etc., the more we restrict the curriculum that can be taught. All schools end up having to teach within a very limited set of guidelines with little room to expand or really understand information. All pupils are individuals, and as such will not all be able to reach their full potential by staying within strict guidelines. Exam grades are becoming much less valued by employers and universities because they don’t refelct the individual or their ability outside the specific curriculum. In short, once you have passed your GCSEs/A-levels, most of the skills you learnt to pass them become redundant. I certainly found that when coming to university you suddenly have to understand things and think for yourself rather than follow the guidelines and keep to the script that will get you the grades (most of the time anyway!).

  6. I agree that standardized tests don’t serve for much purpose other than to compare students and schools and this should not be at the core of our education system. SATs were used only to put schools in league tables and of no benefit to the child. For example I got some bad marks in my history SAT exam but was never moved down any sets as my class work was high. Also children rarely get feedback from their tests just a grade, so how on earth is that meant to aide their learning?
    Another point on this matter is the removal of coursework in GCSEs due to plagerism. This is the stupidest thing I have ever heard. When entering university we had plagerism drilled into us, why not start this in schools. Coursework is a great way of assessing someone’s understanding of a subject and they can get feedback on it so they can learn form their mistakes.

    • I agree Anna, coursework is an essential part of any course as it demonstrates an ability to organise yourself, write logically and research a topic in depth without being a memory test. Removing coursework, especially at GCSE level where the only other assessment is the exam, means a students grade will be based only on test at the end. As discussed earlier this is not a good way to learn! Not everyone copes well in exam conditions, I admit that I seem to have an exceedingly short attention span an can sometimes waste valuable time in exams through lack of concentration, I’m sure many other people have similar issues or genuine diagnosed conditions that make exams difficult for them. Coursework can be done in the students own time at their own pace in a relatively stress-free environment and allow them to really think about what they are doing. I still stand by testing as a useful learning technique, but not as the only asessment of a student and certainly not as a substitute for other methods like coursework.

  7. Like Ed I am also wondering if perhaps it is better not to have these standardized tests at all. Both my secondary school and college focused on us doing well in the exams rather than actual learning of content. For example in Maths at GCSE we learnt by doing lots of practise exams and marking themselves with marking scheme. We quickly learnt the styles of questions that the examination board AQA used. In practise exams the students that were getting As and A*s (myself included) actually ended up with much lower grades. This was because AQA for the first time in about ten years used different styles of questions. Our school as well as other schools in our county complained but as one of our local private schools pointed out “if the children were truly at a high standard of maths they would have been able to apply themselves to different sorts of questions”. Years on I can’t remember much of Maths at all. This personal anecdote I think sums up a lot about teaching in the UK, in my opinion anyway. We should be acquiring knowledge and skills rather than learning marking schemes.

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