It’s a common complaint from students, teachers, the press, and even the odd politician: there’s just too much testing in schools.
And there’s no denying the importance of testing. The whole system is based on, and leads to, 16 and 18 year-olds sitting exams to complete their statutory education, which was particularly highlighted this year when these tests were no longer a viable option.
The alternative Centre Assessed Grades requested that teachers use their professional judgement of the grade their student would most likely have achieved if they had sat exams this summer and any non-exam assessment they had already completed.
So we have a clear acknowledgement and expectation that students will have undergone some form of testing before they get to their exams. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here.
A test by any other name...
What is a ‘non-exam assessment’? Is it the same as a test? Do they mean mocks? Why isn’t it an exam if it is an assessment?
The language we use around testing can be confusing, especially as we tend to use the words interchangeably as synonyms when really there are important differences.
So for clarification:
- Test – the questions on the paper or the activity in front of you to find out what you know or can do. This is probably the most ambiguous term as it can range from a 5-minute Year 2 informal spelling test to an hour-long controlled practical experiment for GCSE Chemistry.
- Exam (examinations) – these usually refer to the high-stakes formal end-of-course tests like GCSEs, IGCSEs, A Levels or the IB. Essentially, students are allocated a grade, level or standard as an evaluation of their achievement. This is also known as summative assessment.
- Assessment – very similar to testing but there is an element of judging involved. Formative assessment, or Assessment for Learning, is using and interpreting evidence for students and their teachers to decide where they are in their learning, where they need to go and how best to get there.
- Baseline assessment – this is a snapshot of a student’s ability at the time they take the test, usually the beginning of the academic year. The assessment results provide information such as their current strengths and weaknesses in specific areas, as well as possible outcomes for their exams.
Teachers can use tests to assess how students may perform in their exams.
But is that really the best use of tests?
Teaching to the test?
Given that exam results are not only a reflection of a student’s knowledge or ability, but also an accountability measure for schools has caused a lot of friction with this idea of testing.
‘Teaching to the test’ has become a common phrase and suggests a focus on exam outcomes to the detriment of wider learning or contextual understanding. Coaching students to answer the 4-mark or 8-mark question through repeated past paper practice or mock exams, rather than cementing an understanding or appreciation for the subject. This is definitely too much testing.
Exam preparation is necessary – you want your students to perform well and not be thrown by whatever appears on the paper – but there’s a fine line between preparing and coaching.
However, the crucial point is that education is not about exams
Last year Ofsted announced that their new framework would put curriculum at the heart of their inspections. Schools must show that their teaching and learning goes beyond exams.
In fact, in a Westminster Education Forum Tim Oates of Cambridge Assessment said that ‘much more assessment’ of the ‘right kind’ is needed.
Teachers assess every lesson and every day. How else can you know if your student has understood what you’ve taught them other than by asking them questions? As Tim Oates also said there is ‘nothing as good as a good question.’
Whether the question is asked verbally or written down as a traditional test, it is still a form of assessment that is helping teachers understand where their students are and where they need to go next.
Assessment, done right, is an equal part of the teaching and learning cycle, supporting teachers to structure their approach to have the greatest impact on their students.
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