In 2019 Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, stated, “In reality, SATs do not tell teachers or parents anything they didn’t already know about their child or school, but have the negative unintended consequences of distracting from teaching and learning.”
However, we have continued to see standardised testing in British schools.
Thankfully, it appears as though the tide may be turning. Last month, Cressida Cowell, author of How to Train your Dragon, wrote an open letter to the Government criticising the curriculum’s focus on testing grammar, spelling, and punctuation, rather than fostering a love of reading and writing. This follows the announcement that a number of top US universities, including Harvard, have done away with test-based entry requirements, citing bias in the favour of privileged students, as well as the detrimental effects of high-stakes exams on students’ mental health as two of the primary motivating factors for doing so.
It is all well and good to remove standardised testing for students leaving school for higher education, but inequalities inherent in this kind of testing, as well as the anxiety, frustration, and upset they can elicit, are sewn into the fabric of children’s lives from the moment they enter the classroom. This is particularly true of the UK, where children of four years old are required to take the Reception Baseline Assessment (RBA) within their first year of school.
How are children negatively affected by standardised testing?
Standardised testing has been pushed by the government in order to reach numeracy and literacy goals, and whilst there has been some success in this, it has been achieved at the expense of narrowing the curriculum. When teachers ‘teach the test’ they prevent their pupils from accessing a more holistic and rounded education that could spark interests or open avenues left unprobed by the set curriculum.
By implementing tests in primary schools we instil the concept of success, and thus ‘failure’, at an age when children should simply want to experience and try out everything they can without the underlying worry that they might ‘fail’ at it. This concept of failure and the anxiety it can produce is particularly affecting for children with special educational needs (SEN), such as dyslexia. In her letter, Cowell states that, “It’s really easy to think you are not very clever if you are constantly being examined, and that can easily turn into an attitudinal problem. Nearly 75 percent of people in prisons have a learning difficulty or were excluded from schools. Gangs become an easier alternative to class.” It seems that with standardised testing, we are setting those children who need extra support up for a life of poor-adjustment, rather than nurturing them and making them believe in their own ability.
This is not just true of children with SEN, some of the children most affected by attainment metrics will be those who are younger than their peers, depending on when they were born in the school year. So, in virtue of the month in which they were born, standardised testing can make children believe that they are not clever, or cannot achieve what they set out to. This opinion, when embedded at such a formative time, is likely to impact them throughout their lives.
By prioritising testing and results we place comparatively little emphasis on personal development and accomplishments, narrowing children’s learning horizons from the outset and overlooking the importance of creativity and extra-curricular activities, such as interactive play, for proper social and academic development. Since the dawn of standardised testing the amount of time spent on creative teaching, investigation, play, and practical work has reduced considerably, and lessons are most often dictated by the curriculum and test content. This disadvantages children, as a study confirmed that both primary and secondary school pupils said that they learned more effectively in active and creative lessons because they were memorable.
The importance of learning through play
Research suggests that learning through play can accelerate and enhance the progress of early development by improving language skills, increasing children’s adjustment levels, and reducing social and emotional problems. Brian Sutton-Smith theorised that play-based learning also helps children develop the neural connections and pathways which will be needed for advanced learning required at a later stage, so constructive play essentially lays the foundation required for more sophisticated learning. He also believed that children who play regularly with their peers will have higher levels of adjustment as adults than those who do not engage in play.
Whilst learning through fun is not prohibited by standardised testing, it is certainly dampened. This includes reading for pleasure, the discouragement of which is an unintended consequence of test-based learning as teachers will prioritise teaching a child to read according to the metrics outlined by a test, rather than encouraging them to develop a love of reading and consume books that they enjoy and which spark their imagination.
A government study suggests that reading enjoyment is more important for children’s educational success than their family’s socio-economic status. Reading for pleasure is an activity that has emotional and social consequences and has lifelong benefits for children, including: text comprehension, grammar, a lifelong source of enjoyment, pleasure, and escapism, as well as increased general, or extra-curricular, knowledge.
Can tech offer an alternative to testing?
One alternative to standardised tests is relying on teachers’ observations. Teachers are best placed to find out where young children are and what they need to learn next on the basis of observing and working closely with them. An assessment based on a teachers’ observations of a child over a prolonged period would be a more accurate representation of the child’s development and learning as a whole, rather than what they are capable of on a particular day.
However, this perhaps puts too much pressure on the teacher to notice and record developments in a significant number of children. It is possible to use education technology to monitor progress on an ongoing basis. This offers a more holistic view of development and gives educators an insight into development without the stress for children and their families of working up to a big test. Technology gives us the ability to embed learning within processes children are already engaging in, such as through games on a smartphone. If children’s screen time is rising anyway, then it seems to make sense to harness their time spent on devices by gamifying learning and monitoring their progress in this way.
If children’s progress were to be tracked through edtech, then there would be no stressful process of a big testing event followed by formalised results. The removal of formalised testing would liberate children from a significant amount of the anxiety they encounter in the classroom today, giving them the opportunity to “fail successfully” – to learn from their mistakes without the demoralising barriers of test-based outcomes.