Testing and assessment worry parents and teachers, although both are integral and critical to good teaching, says Rod Bristow. He explains why his company now plans to talk to “all stakeholders” to bring about positive change.
Teachers understand better than anyone that good assessment is part and parcel of good teaching. But 2017 will be a landmark year in how we assess the progress our children are making in schools. The government will consult on primary testing, and in secondary schools we will see the first results of the new GCSE, A-level and vocational exams.
In recent years, attitudes towards testing and assessment have become polarised. The heavy weight placed on exams has led teachers and parents to challenge the amount and the nature of testing. But it would be wise to challenge the weight that is placed on assessment as much as the assessment itself.
Earlier this year, a survey we commissioned of parents, teachers and headteachers confirmed negative attitudes to testing. Parents complain that the main thing teachers care about now is test preparation and test results, while teachers don’t seem to disagree. They are concerned that high stakes assessment is distorting the curriculum and leads to pressure to teach to the test, rather than improvements in teaching and learning.
Testing should spur learning on, not terminate it
The polling, just before GCSEs and A-levels last summer, showed testing and assessment as a top teacher and parental concern – second at 32 per cent after workload for teachers; second at 30 per cent after funding for parents.
There was worry about the impact of the culture of testing on teachers and students (56 per cent among teachers, 60 per cent among heads). And 91 per cent of teachers polled thought teacher evaluation was too reliant on student performance.
My own view, in common with most teachers, is that qualifications, assessments and the feedback they provide are important. They are an integral and critical part of good teaching, just as they have always been. But tests are just an indicator, a snapshot of knowledge at a point in time. They don’t define everything a person knows, let alone someone’s worth. They need to be treated as such.
I hope that the debate over testing next year will be helpful, but I worry that significant changes will not be well understood. Of course, it’s our job to make sure they are, but assessment itself must not be discredited if they are not. Perhaps the best we can hope for longer term is that exams are placed in context. Testing provides an important indicator of progress; but it is not the “be-all and end-all” in describing what someone knows and can do. Testing should inspire great teaching and spur learning on, not terminate it.
My fear is that if tests carry more weight than they should, we may continue to see a reaction against them
My fear is that if tests carry more weight than they should, we may continue to see a reaction against them, and against the important work that teachers are leading across the country to raise standards.
While government-devised systems of accountability need to acknowledge unintended consequences, teaching needs to do the same.
Strong leadership plays its part in putting testing in its place. The best schools I visit make a point of telling their students to do just this. That’s sometimes easier said than done, but we need to debate how we ensure that assessment underpins, not undermines, effective teaching and learning.
We are going to convene a conversation about these issues and will be working with LKMco, the education and youth think and action-tank, to consult on views about assessment with teachers, parents, government and everyone with a stake in the future of testing and assessment.
At Pearson we recognise that while we can facilitate discussion and lend our expertise in this field, it is the opinions of teachers that count the most.
Over the coming months we will solicit opinions, engage with teachers and promote any resulting new thinking to bring about positive change in how assessment is used for the benefit of young people. We will publish a report on the results of this consultation in the spring.
Rod Bristow is president of Pearson UK