Testing children at primary school has its 'pitfalls'

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Tests and assessments carried out at school are often seen as a way of predicting how well a child will do later on in life. However, new research from the Institute of Education (IOE), suggests that how well a child is doing at one point is no guarantee of later success or difficulty.

The research by Professor Richard Cowan, shows that a child’s ability, particularly in primary school, does not follow a set pattern and there is considerable instability in their progression. The intellectual differences between typical five and 10-year-olds are much greater than the differences between 10 and 15-year-olds.

Professor Cowan said: “The factors influencing the development of intelligence and ability in children are complex. Intellectual tests are more like car MOTs, assessing current performance, than medical blood tests that assess constants like blood type.”

Some children may find their educational success and future life opportunities hampered due to an unreliable judgement being made on their abilities so early on, according to the research.

Conversely, doing less well than their classmates may spur children on to try harder, and result in them demonstrating higher levels of intelligence later on in primary school.

Children who are doing well may also suffer because they come to think they can do well without trying and may become complacent or anxious.

“Children develop and change at different rates, and according to a variety of factors," Professor Cowan said.

"It is important to be wary of the pitfalls of labelling a child as either high or low ability based on testing early on in primary school. Presuming individual differences to be stable for the purposes of selection within schooling is dangerous and not a reliable indicator.”

The findings complement previous research that suggests beliefs held by parents and teachers about ability may affect children. If they believe that success in key subjects such as English or Maths reflects fixed abilities rather than effort, then they will be less inclined to support children who are struggling.

School Leadership Today
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