Monday, October 18, 2004

To test or not to test, that is the question!

Politicians as ever always like the easy answer. Sort out schools by national testing and then in turn sort out schools and individual teachers and all will be well

Primary schools have been introducing a new innovative testing program in literacy and numeracy designed by Auckland University lecturer John Hattie. The tests allow teachers to choose what they test to suit what is being taught and then to remedy both their student's knowledge and their own teaching. The tests also show how students compare with similar students throughout NZ. So far so good.

Now Bill English, Opposition Education spokesman ( searching for some political traction)wants to turn these valuable diagnostic tests in to 'high stake' ones by making them automatically available to parents. I guess this seems sensible on the surface as well. The next step would be to align the tests across all schools ( having all students sit the same tests) and by this means to introduce national testing by default. And I guess this would seem sensible to many parents as well.

Simple but simplistic. First of all the tests are time consuming and need to be used sensibly if time is to be protected for other equally valuable areas of the curriculum - creative problem solving in areas other than literacy and numeracy, science, information technology and the creative arts.

If such valuable diagnostic tools were to be scaled up into compulsory testing then we will also have to accept the 'surveillance culture ' that comes with it: the narrowing of the curriculum, teaching to the tests, and a loss of teacher creativity and spontaneity. As well, countries like the UK ( with their League Tables comparing all school on narrow criteria) after an initial improvement have found that their scores trend down again. The uniformity of our system already fails the non conformist talented and gifted and, equally importantly, the students whose life experiences or cultures are not currently fully recognized. National tests would do nothing to solve these systemic problems - quite the opposite.

If we are to really face up to students failing in our schools we need to avoid national testing and use whatever tests are available diagnosticaly ( sharing results with parents ) but most of all by focusing on improving the quality of teaching and learning. I don't think ( as it is being suggested) that teachers do not want to share test results because of defensiveness - their arguement is a professional one. Even the designer of the tests in question does not want them to be turned into national tests. This of course was always the risk.

The Assessment Tools for Teaching and Learning ( asTTle) are exactly what they say. If used wisely they empower teachers and provide detailed feedback to teachers and learners to remedy any gaps. It would be a shame of these great ideas were limited to only numeracy and literacy. Negative aspects of the tests in question are that they are time consuming - we should at all costs protect the time for teaching and learning unless we agree to let the tail wag the dog!

The parents who seem to demand test results already have students with the 'social capital' to do well at school. I would hope they have as much concern for the students who struggle or who come from less fortunate homes. Research shows that having high expectations, quality teaching and parent involvement will help these students. If diagnostic testing is part of the solution then they should be used. But testing in itself with no feedback - and particularly resulting in national league tables is already a failed idea.

And of course all the tests are about literacy and numeracy. It is vital that these be seen for what they are 'foundation skills', skills which enable all students to develop their full learning potential and contribute to a love of learning. If these were tests of 'learnacy' I wouldn't mind so much!

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