> Mrs. O'Neill's Blog: Tough tests

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Tough tests

Imagine you sign up for a job where your boss gives you feedback every week on how well you are doing. At first you feel you are doing well. Your boss is making allowances for it being a new job. You are feeling hopeful. You find the job quite interesting and it has several really good perks. Then things start to get a little sticky. Your boss isn’t actually publicizing your appraisal, but all employee appraisals are given out at the same time, so of course it is natural that you and your fellow employees will trade appraisals. Sometimes another person will approach you to ask you what the boss said to you about your participation in some project or other. Sometimes you will simply tell someone else what the boss said.

Before long, you realize that there are more people invested in that appraisal than just you. Your family, for example, want to know how things are going. They ask you every day. Some family members get really upset if things don’t go that well. Soon you begin to realize that you are being ranked against all the other employees in your section, and that you are definitely not one of the top achievers. Those who get that special status –usually the same people every week- are given a lot of praise and encouragement.

So what do you do now? Career counselors would, without hesitation, advise a career change. Not everyone can handle a job like that, although granted there are some who will thrive in that environment. Those who ‘perform’ better will love the affirmation they get from being placed top of the list.

You follow the advice of family and friends. They remind you that life is like this. It turns out that almost all of them have held the same job at one time or another. Some of them liked it, some of them hated it. They offer different kinds of advice ranging from ‘Try harder.’ to ‘The hell with them!’ You are hopeful by nature. You want to do well at your job. You try harder. But things don’t improve. No matter what you do you can’t get onto that special list of top people. You really feel like you want to get out.

There’s only one problem.

You are six years old and you have got 12 more years of this to go. The job you are trying to hold down is simply being a student and the boss is your teacher.

Okay, so I am being emotive, but that’s what we are doing with a high number of our children in school. We are obsessing so much about testing that we are failing to see how unhappy and unproductive our constant testing makes many students.

I am not advocating no testing or grading. I am not saying that we should pretend that some students are not academically more able than others. All I am suggesting is that we dethrone ‘testing’ as the central experience of school. Our schools should be places which focus on learning not testing.

We have to have tests –but let’s make them less focused on ranking students and more on how to learn better. Let’s give students targets for themselves, not bars that only a few can jump. Let’s stop putting our children through something we would refuse as adults.


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
StephenB said...

Definitely. I still find it odd that American schools seem to base a heck of a lot on Grades. Also, something you said in this post struck me as strange. "Those who get that special status –usually the same people every week- are given a lot of praise and encouragement.". Surely it should be those underachieving who are given that extra push? I think to a certain extent that Grading is good but if it's focussed to heavily on, I think students could miss out important aspects of their course, and instead just go straight for what the examiners want. Would there be any room for more independant thought, or classroom discussion, if students became so obsessed with grades that they simply do what they know examiners want?

Hope you had a lovely christmas and a wishing you the best for 2009!

Mrs. O'Neill's Blog said...

Thanks for your comment Stephen. Hope this year is a great one for you too!

Anonymous said...

Hello there, Sue here (Nae view))
Happy new year to you.
I agree with what you are saying however I don't want to depress you but I feel this way as a teacher! With the dreaded target word and my appraisals dependent on the performance of the children I teach. My school is in a disadvantaged area and we are on a notice to improve due to our results being below the national average. The progress our kids make from when they start our school to leaving it is huge but because some don't often reach the magic academic SATS level 4 they are labelled as non achievers. (They are quite often just short of it) The fact that they can now manage and articulate their feelings, feel safe and valued in school, behave responsibly and are ready and willing to learn and are ready for secondary school, and feel a real sense of achievement in themselves doesn't feature and is not often recognised by the dreaded O people. (Quite often this has been achieved without the support, help and advice of family and friends.)
It is no wonder we have so many unemployed people as so many people young and older give up as they feel they will never make it on to the top of the 'list'. The sooner we stop focusing on testing the better. After all keep indicating to children they haven't quite made the grade and watch them turn into adults who don't even bother trying. Then because they think they were no good often tell their children that and don't place any value on learning.
Take care and comfort yourself with well they might not be on the top of the list but they have moved up a rung or two of the ladder.

Mrs. O'Neill's Blog said...

Thanks Sue for your thoughtful comment. I agree -many teachers are being 'punished' with testing as much as their pupils. This is a stressful and demanding job -that requires a lot of heart- but constant appraisal and scrutiny wears you down. Especially when you know that you have achieved a lot of things with kids which don't show up on a national tests.
Let's hope change comes soon for all of us. Maybe if the powers that be listened a bit more to teachers?
Hope you had a nice break! A Guid New Year to you!

Tommy Kelly said...

Hi Liz. One of signs I've seen, that there is too much focus on testing, is the number of ways students (and teachers) find to fudge the system. There are the simple ones like, at our high school where (not sure if this was just one teacher) if kids didn't use all their restroom passes over a year, they could exchange unused ones for an increase in a test grade. And then at university there is "grade repair". A lower GPA student will deliberately shift away from the hard core major subjects, and into easier stuff, to pull up their flagging Number. For example, I've heard of Spanish-fluent kids taking Spanish.

It seems there are really two basic goals for our education, both at odds. One is pedagogical - we genuinely want them to learn things. One is - here's the libertarianesque cynic in me - each successive government wanting to boast that they, and only they, can shove millions of cookie-shaped kids through the cutter.

I think the cookie cutters have the upper hand at the moment.

Mrs. O'Neill's Blog said...

Thanks for commenting Tommy. I think the practice of using non-academic things to adjust grades is used all over. If you think about it –taking points off for work being late, or to punish student misbehavior, also skews the grade. That sort of feedback needs to be kept separate from the grade which is supposed to reflect academic progress. So why do teachers do it? Because the grade is the only leverage you have in this system.

I think schools need to be accountable, but like you I am uneasy about the success criteria they are being tested against.