Thursday, December 18, 2008
Testing our way into the 19th C!
Those with their minds firmly fixed in a patronising, mechanistic, or technocratic approach, always see measurement as the ultimate way of guaranteeing progress.Like any simple solution to a complex problem it is wrong -and has been proved so. Standard based teaching was the approach of education in Victorian times - each class was called a standard ( standard one etc) that you progressed to if you passed the test. In the early days, in the UK, teachers were paid by results their students gained in the tests. Maybe that is next on our 'new' governments agenda?
The National Government has rushed through its National Testing Legislation.According to the Prime Minister ' all students will face testing against national standards in literacy and numeracy from next year'.
What exactly this populist and reactionary legislation means in action will be discovered next year. It is hard to believe that this was seen as a priority when the real issue is to equip students with the dispositions they will need thrive in an uncertain and potentially exciting future. Not that literacy and numeracy aren't important - they are - but they are best seen as vital 'foundation skills' to be in place for students to use to further their learning and not an end in themselves. The new Government made no reference to the liberating intent of the 2007 curriculum as they head back to the past.
And it is not to say that primary schools do not currently test their students. Far from it. As Kelvin Smythe says ,' schools are already assessed up to the gunwales...the last thing they need is more pressure from the Review Office for even more assessment'. National Party policy statements say that new tests won't be required as teachers already use AsTTle and PAT etc but they will be establishing benchmarks setting out minimum skills. This might not be such a concern as many school already do this and, if it were simplified, it might cut out the need for so many tests. Some of the tests schools are 'encouraged' to use , according to Kelvin Smythe, are overblown providing lots of data and little information, and I agree with him.
We will have to wait and see.
In the meantime in the UK has shown that national testing, although providing initial improvements,are now plateauing and trending down. In the UK results are published in 'league table' ( without reference to decile rating) creating 'winner and loser' schools. Ironically punishing, in the process, the very students who make up the 'achievement tail'. And standardised tests always have an 'achievement tail!
The same situation occurs with President Bush's 'No Child Left Behind' ( NCLB) standardised testing.
Both in the UK and the USA teachers teach to the test aiming their attention to those students not quite making the grade to improve their graphs. Such a narrow approach, in both countries, has led to the undermining of creative teaching, less time spent on other important areas of the curriculum, all leading to shallow learning. UK educator Guy Claxton writes that a side product of measurable improved achievement results is creating anxiety in both students and their parents, let alone killing the creativity of teachers, and is resulting in students losing the joy of reading and maths. 'The assessment tail is wagging the dog', or as they say, 'you can't fatten a pig by measuring it'!
National testing comes with a cost.
Canadian educationist Michael Fullan believes New Zealand in coasting on past success ( Education Gazette Nov 08) and believes we need to focus on 'capacity building' ( the 'will and skill') of teachers before accountability so as to implement successful practices. Reflecting back to the literacy programmes before Tomorrow's Schools might indicate where we have gone wrong.
All the imposed 'best practice' literacy and numeracy programmes of the past decades has not shown the improvement promised. As well this emphasis has all but squeezed out inquiry learning and the creative arts. If anything literacy and numeracy needs to be 're framed' to ensure students have the information gathering and expressive skills to ensure students gain both deep understanding and the important key competencies, or future learning dispositions.
The worst effects of the imposition of this 'Big Brother' national testing ( by a Government that believes in freedom, initiative and individual enterprise) will be on the enthusiasm, morale and creativity of teachers. Such a testing regime will create conformist teaching - the very thing we don't want if we are to really face up to the 'achievement tail'.
Kelvin Squire the former president of the New Zealand Principal's Federation , is quoted by Kelvin Smthe, saying, ' We could be moving to Worst Evidence Stupidity.We know that punitive, high stakes testing doesn't work....I've travelled all over the world with the Principal's Federation and I have seen it doesn't work.I'd resist national testing, do civil disobedience, if I had to!'
In Australia the same testing agenda is being implemented and, according to a past Director General of Education Queensland Phil Cullen, this measurement obsessed hierarchy is destroying the purpose of true education. He quotes Alfie Kohn one of Americas most outspoken critic of testing. Kohn writes, ' A plague has been sweeping through schools wiping out the most innovative instruction and beating down some of the best teachers....ironically this plague has been released in the name of improving schools.Invoking such terms as "tougher standards" people with little understanding of how children learn have imposed a heavy handed, top down , test driven version of school reform that is lowering the quality of education in this country...Turning schools into giant test-prep centres, effectively closing off intellectual inquiry and undermining enthusiasm for learning ( and teaching).It has taken longer to realize that this is a ...political movement that must be opposed'.
Lester Flockton echoes thoughts in this blog in his article in the November Principal Magazine. He has expanded his views in an article in December's excellent Education Today magazine. He states that it is 'nonsensical and unfair to expect that schools alone should be accountable for the educational malaise'. He continues 'school are good for children but they cannot overcome deep deficits'. Lets not kid ourselves' he says.
These thoughts of Lester's about the wider responsibility of society to underachieving schools relates to ideas that Kelvin Squires has also written about. It is all to a easy to fix blame on school and then only to offer simplistic populist solutions.
What is required is broader bolder approach to education. Schools must play their part by providing opportunities for all students to reach their full potential. However there is no evidence that schools alone, no matter how good, can close worrying educational achievement gaps.
A broader school approach would not only focus on basic skills but also to develop the whole person including physical health, character, social development and non academic skills - the 'key competencies'.
A broader approach would also need to focus on the total environment the students come from, the importance of high quality early childhood, the encouraging of at least one parent to be able to look after children for the first three years with all the support possible, and developing integrated relationships between schools and other community organisations.
Testing just doesn't cut it!