Testing Times…

For everyone associated with schools – parents, students and teachers alike – there are times when life can feel like an endless treadmill of one test after another.

For example, this term the Year 7 and Year 9 half yearlies followed right on the heels of NAPLAN. And for any students in Years 11 and 12 it’s sometimes more accurate to ask which assessment tasks are due rather than if anything’s due.

Now, I’ve rarely met anyone who likes examinations – the very word fills some with fear and loathing – so this raises an important question: just how helpful is all this testing, testing, testing?

Like many things in education, much of the testing we do is actually determined by outside forces. But there is also much we could discuss about the best approaches to assessment, or when enough is enough. I’m well aware, however, that most of you would doze off if I went on about it for too long! Allow me say, then, that some testing is valuable and it is the mindset we bring to it that will often determine its effectiveness.

Annie Murphy Paul is an insightful commentator who writes regularly for the New York Times. Her Affirmative Testing Manifesto is based on up-to-date educational and brain-based research and I’ve included a brief summary of its key points:

  1. Testing should exist, first and foremost, to serve the needs of students.
  2. Testing is most effective when it’s about learning rather than the mark or rank. Students should always receive timely feedback about what was right or wrong, and why it was right or wrong.
  3. Success in tests should be challenging but achievable for everyone taking them. Well-designed tests increase motivation and help students to develop resilience and persistence.
  4. Students should be given time to reflect on their preparation for tests and their performance in them.
  5. Testing should inculcate a growth mindset by demonstrating that ability grows through exerting effort and learning from mistakes.
  6. Anxiety is reduced when frequent low stakes (or no stakes) tests are held throughout the year.
  7. Testing should support deep learning, not rote memorization. That is, tests should help to: create connections between old and new knowledge; draw abstract principles from concrete examples; and transfer knowledge from one domain to another.
  8. Valid assessment activities can nurture cooperation and collaboration before, after, and even during a task. That is, traditional testing methods are not always best.

These affirmative principles offer much to reflect upon for students, parents and teachers, especially as the half yearly reports will be sent home over the next few weeks. I can already see these values at work in many sections of the school, and I make no secret of the fact that I’d like to see them embedded even more deeply in future as “standard practice”.

If you haven’t dozed off yet and you’d like to discuss to discuss them further, I’d be only too happy to oblige…

Mike Nightingale
Director of Teaching and Learning