How many times are students assessed during their school years? It’s hard to estimate, but I think it’s fair to say, “a lot”.
There are GCSEs and A-levels, the Cambridge Pre-U or the International Baccalaureate. There are KS2 national curriculum tests. And, for students looking to enter selective independent or grammar schools, there are entrance exams. Then there are the major internal assessments: mock exams, end-of-term exams and end-of-year exams. And, throughout, there are the many, many monthly, weekly and sometimes daily assessments intended for monitoring and reinforcing classroom learning. English spelling tests, maths problems, multiple-choice science question sheets, modern and classical languages vocabulary tests, unseen translations, essays…
Barack Obama recently released a compelling short video calling for limits on standardised testing in US schools.
“I’ve heard from parents who worry that too much testing is keeping their kids from learning some of life’s most important lessons,” he says. “I’ve heard from teachers who feel so much pressure to teach to a test that it takes the joy out of teaching and learning, both for them and for the students. I want to fix that.”
“When I look back on the great teachers who shaped my life, what I remember isn’t the way they prepared me to take a standardized test. What I remember is the way they taught me to believe in myself. To be curious about the world. To take charge of my own learning so that I could reach my full potential. They inspired me to open up a window into parts of the world I’d never thought of before.”
Naturally, Mr Obama isn’t looking to end testing in schools – the first sentence in his administration’s Testing Action Plan states: “One essential part of educating students successfully is assessing their progress in learning to high standards”. He just wants tests that are “smart”, “strategic”, “worth taking” and effective in making sure students are on track. Tests that allow teachers to be able to spend more time on those broader aspects of education.
Mr Obama is talking about standardised tests in US schools, but I think his words will resonate with many parents, teachers and education professionals in the UK.
The focus on exam performance and testing permeates the education system. Students seeking to enter a university or school where there are more applicants than places will need to achieve the requisite marks or grades. Meanwhile, the senior leaders of the students’ schools, who are under pressure to maintain or improve the school’s standing, are all too aware that benchmarking is based to a very considerable degree on how their students perform in external exams. And teachers, in turn, are required to test students regularly, so they can make sure the students are on track to reach their individual target grades, and prove that their own teaching is having the right impact in supporting their schools’ targets and aspirations.
With a full syllabus to teach in limited timetabled hours, and significant lesson time allocated to administering tests, teachers often feel the system doesn’t give them space to attend to those broader aspects of education mentioned by Mr Obama. Teachers feel under pressure to set aside the ‘nice-to-haves’ and focus on the ‘need-to-haves’. In other words, not to spend time on what may be valuable for students only in the future when they’re at university or developing their career, but to concentrate on what’s important right now – helping the students get the grades they need to progress appropriately through the education system.
Focusing on exam performance and attending to the broader aspects of education are often viewed as mutually exclusive then.
I don’t think they should be.
At Cornerstone Tutors, we ensure students have the syllabus knowledge and analytical skills they need for their exams. If students don’t have these in place, and aren’t familiarised with the content and format of the exams through practice questions, they simply can’t expect to make a good showing on the day.
But our exam tutors also incorporate into their tuition those broader aspects of education mentioned by Mr Obama. Why? Studies show that if students are encouraged to “believe in themselves”, “be curious about the world” and “take charge of their own learning so that they can reach their full potential”, they will be in a better position to build on their core understanding, overcome blocks to understanding and become more confident in their knowledge. They will feel more self-assured and motivated, and they will feel more comfortable about the examination day itself.
In short, students will feel better equipped for their exams and have an important ‘edge’ they wouldn’t otherwise have had.
Yes, nice-to-haves. Very nice.