10 May, 2011

High Stakes Standardised Testing an Anachronism (IMHO)

I just read this article in the Edublogger and thought I'd jot down some thoughts.

Curriculum-based or Needs-based?
I've been teaching Maths for eleven years now. I've always felt a little hamstrung by the fact that my tertiary qualifications used maths but weren't math-based (civil engineering and sports science). As a result, whilst I can often think of a practical application for some of the skills I teach, it doesn't necessarily attract much sympathy from students who want to know when they are likely to use the skills they are learning. Why would you need Pythagoras theorem when as far as you're concerned you're going to be doing hairdressing and make-up? As I see it, this frustration arises from the fact that students feel so time-poor in mathematics.
House of Cards
On average , I would have met the majority of students in a particular cohort by about Year 9 or 10. By this point, having given up on trying to learn their times-tables in primary, they then typically failed to understand Fractions (because the mental calculations to aid proficiency were too hard and so consequently they didn't really get Decimals or Percentages). Algebraic techniques went over their heads because the idea of a variable or pronumeral didn't have a chance to sink in (and then Equations, formulae for Area & Perimeter, Pythagoras theorem and Coordinate Geometry became inaccessible). By the time they hit Year 10, just as their first major high-stakes exam is due, they are aware of the time limit and want to prioritise on the features of mathematics which they individually feel are most important to them. They don't have time to waste on features of the curriculum they feel they won't have any practical use for.
Algebra is a typical example of this. How do you explain to a student with very little theoretical understanding of mathematics that learning algebraic skills is actually going to help them appreciate the underlying rules themselves. "When am I ever going to be doing 3a+2a as a plumber?" There may be an easy answer to this question, but I, unfortunately, don't know it.
Exams Still sat at an Age not a Stage
I think the problem is that the exam standard is linked to the age of the student. You have to sit your School Certificate in Year 10 and your High School Certificate in Year 12. We all know that students learn at different rates and the curriculum sets outcomes for particular stages (not ages). Yet we still group them according to age and expect them to sit a high-stakes standardized exam when they complete Year 10. Without the School Certificate, they cannot access certain privileges within society, such as access to apprenticeships, better income support, etc.
I believe that the vast majority of our student population would happily cruise through the NSW Mathematics School Certificate paper at the end of year 10, if they had been allowed the opportunity to continue working on a topic until they understood it. It isn't meant to be a hard exam, it just sets a standard that is meant to be achieved.
But when the curriculum states which particular outcomes each year group is meant to have addressed by the end of each stage; and the classroom teacher feels pressured to address all of those outcomes before the end of the school year, many students get left behind on a particular outcome because they get moved forward to quickly.
As a consequence, the next time the particular outcome is addressed as the preamble to the next stage, the student has to be re-taught almost the entire topic, leaving less time for the subsequent outcome to be addressed.
It's a vicious circle. The more time we allow for a student to catch-up on missed learning the less time we have to ensure that they achieve that Year 10 milestone and the more likely we are to try and hasten them forward before they are ready. Subsequently, the student becomes more disaffected with their educational experience and they are more resistant to learning the relevant material when it comes up again, having failed at it so many times before.
Different Learning Rates
We all know that students learn at different rates. Some students shoot off in front of the class whilst others lag behind and the reasons why this happens are well documented: cultural capital (the amount of learning, resources and experience accessible to a student in their home life and community); learning styles (Gardiner's taxonomy) and simple student personality amongst others. I'm sure there that there are many excellent teachers who do individualise their students' learning programs appropriately, but what happens when those students change teachers or schools? Unless meticulous records are kept (likely), shared (unfortunately, not so likely) and then used appropriately, the students just find themselves thrown back into the melting pot with the other students in their new class and have to waste time trying to help their new teacher understand whereabouts they are in the grand scheme of things.
In my school, we use the student data that is available to us to help stream our students, rightly or wrongly, into ability classes. When a student arrives from a new school, the head teacher will conduct a short interview and attempt to place them in a suitable class according to his assessment of the student's ability.
The Examination/Reporting Roller-coaster
This system tries to address the issue of students appearing at different stages but we still feel tied to the timescale of our curriculum. We try to ensure that we have taught the material we need to teach, in time for the exams. We then set and mark the exams so that we can give parents appropriate feedback in reports. We then regrade the classes allowing some students to move ahead or drop back into a class more appropriate to their ability, and so the whole routine carries on.
Where Does Their Love of Learning Go?
I was lucky enough when I first started teaching to spend a few months doing some casual blocks for primary schools around the Northern Beaches in Sydney. I mainly worked in junior primary classes. It was possibly the most joyous continuous experience of my teaching career simply because the students were so enthusiastic. They wanted to learn! They wanted to learn about everything and their enthusiasm was infectious. I got called in one morning to be the face-to-face relief teacher for all the Kindy classes. The Principal (rushed off his feet) just had time to show me the Art room and say that the first class was due in a couple of minutes and then dashed off to deal with another disaster. I looked around the room. Of course many of the cupboards were locked and the only resources I could find were a few pots of textas (felt-tip pens) and some black-and-white drawings of Easter Eggs (this was in September!) The first class arrived and I rather apologetically explained that we would be colouring in Easter Eggs. To my surprise there were huge whoops of delight and everybody set to with a will. We had a great discussion about Easter and what it meant (not just chocolate!) and I left the classroom feeling like the class (and the subsequent two classes) actually learned something.
In contrast, many high school students simply do not have that same level of enthusiasm for their education. Last year I told some Year 10 students about this and other experiences and asked them when and why they thought they stopped enjoying school and learning. Although the actual age varied, the general consensus was that it was the point where they stopped feeling successful. That failure or boredom was occurring more frequently than success.
Obviously this was completely ad-hoc and would bear further study, but my feeling is that everyone wants to learn, that they feel successful when they achieve something new. I look at the amount of time my students spend playing games, learning the lyrics to songs, arguing about sporting or media personalities and can't help but be aware of the amount of information they are happy to absorb. They are not by any stretch of the imagination, passive learners. They just don't like school! It gets in the way of their learning and has been getting in the way of their learning since they stopped feeling successful there.
What to Do About It?
Just from this little survey then, it would seem that the secret to keeping students motivated to continue learning in a school environment is to make sure that they always feel that they are successful. This means that they have to be tested when they are ready.
Unfortunately, because teachers generally have to write their own tests and should obviously be concerned that the assessment is valid, a class or cohort tends to have to sit the exam at the same time under controlled conditions, which of course argues against an individual assessment program. It also means that formal assessment occurs infrequently (once a term?)
Logistically an individual teacher setting and sitting individual tests under the current system would be facing an absolute nightmare. It may be less so for a High School faculty or larger Primary school but would still be a massive undertaking. And it still doesn't address the problem of reporting the standard of a student transferring between schools.
The obvious step then would be for these tests to be standardized across the curriculum. This sounds like I'm passing the buck onto the Board of Studies, but I think that the sorts of collaborative tools offered to us by web2.0 technologies would actually work to make this task much simpler to manage and execute.
The Global Exam Room
What I am imagining would happen is something like this: The Board sets the standards that a student is meant to achieve for an individual topic. I have a group of six students in my class who have almost finished their unit of work on Stage 3 Fractions and want to sit the test. I inform the Board that I have students who are ready to be assessed on that particular outcome. The Board then sends me an exam consisting of a random selection of questions designed to assess their understanding. The students sit the test, I mark it and feed the information back to the Board via an online form. The Board would keep records of student achievement so that when a student transfers from one school to another, their record of achievement would be accessible there.
So who writes and approves all these questions? Well we would. Periodically, the Board would send me a package containing a proforma for me to write some questions designed to assess some specified outcomes, as well as some questions written by other teachers that I would be asked to review and comment on. I would write the questions, solutions and marking guide, review the other questions and send them back. My questions would in turn be sent to another teacher or teachers to review before they were then added to a bank increasing the pool of questions available to draw from when a teacher requests a test.
The review process would be quite important as I would be required to comment on how well my students would be able to interpret and answer the question. My response would be tagged against such things as my school's socio-economic status, region and local indigenous and immigrant cultures. Having assessment tasks that are matched (by a process of peer-review) to the particular societal make-up would ease the load on task writers having to write questions that are generic but sometimes seem culturally clich├ęd in some areas. Some questions would be generic, but some may be extremely suitable or unsuitable for a particular area.
Importantly, the total pool of questions is always available for students to look at so that they can see how they are likely to be assessed at the end of a unit of work. They would know what they are working toward. The micro-management scale allows the student to see an achievable short-term goal in front of them and thus maintains their motivation.
In terms of ensuring that the exam is sat in a controlled environment, I would imagine that within a school, there would be a significant number of students ready to sit different tests at any particular time and so timetabling would allow for one or two classrooms and teachers to be available for testing.
How do We Teach This?
Obviously this is quite a major consideration, but it occurs to me, that there is actually nothing to prevent a teacher from continuing as they do currently. If they feel that they do a decent job of getting their class from A to B and want the entire class to sit the exam at the same time, then why not. Any student that fails would be given support to achieve the given outcome anyway and could easily be reassessed.
Speaking from personal experience, the "traditional" chalk-and-talk method has never really worked for me. I can't seem to find the right combination of materials and presentation that allows all the students to achieve the same outcome by the end of the lesson or unit. I've been to plenty of presentations by fabulous teachers who make it sound effortless (well not effortless but certainly carried off with style) and I'm in awe of the marvellous work done by our support teachers who work with classes whose difference in ability level is much greater than mine.
I find the idea of a multi-stream class quite challenging but extremely appealing. I've always worked much better as a facilitator than as a teacher. By which, I mean that I tend to go around the classroom offering help to individual students when they get stuck with a particular problem. I tend to find units of work in which the students have their own workbook and work at their own pace, are much more successful and stress-free.
I'm sure that there are also many other alternative approaches used around the world. We are already starting to see units of work shared on the web. The actual creation of units of work is becoming less time-consuming because so much is available to share. All that needs to happen is for a common standard of tagging to be applied to allow teachers to find relevant units of work easily.
The New National Curriculum
It seems to me that the development of an Australian National Curriculum offers a superb opportunity for a system of this sort to be set up. Examinations are not really a realistic reflection of how we apply knowledge in society. We do tests on a regular basis, but they aren't generally very long and we can usually resit them fairly easily e.g driving tests, first aid, etc.
More importantly though, this system allows for continuous assessment. Students wouldn't be on the verge of panic waiting for their Year 12 results to come through but should be able to predict almost a year in advance what their end result is likely to be and transmit their record of achievement to the university as part of their application. They could and should have the opportunity to go back and resit a test in order to improve their overall grade. This reinforces the idea of personal responsibility. It's up to them to work to improve their grade and also the rate of completion. An improved grade can only come about through personal effort.
Time for Change
It seems to me that a one-off one-time high-stakes test is an anachronism. It is no longer necessary to rely on a small panel of people to produce an exam that is going to be able to assess the majority of outcomes which have been taught using different methods in different areas to different subsets of society.
Students need to feel successful in their education continually from Kindergarten through to Year 12 or they lose interest and turn to richer and more entertaining sources of information and learning. They need feedback on their progress earlier and they need to feel that they are being assessed when they are ready.
Building a suitably sized pool of assessable questions designed to assess understanding of an outcome should be a relatively easy undertaking. With the advent of reliable internet tools and professional networking services, it would take very little effort by the thousands of available teachers (there were 255,000 Australian teachers in the 2002 census!)
If the emphasis is taken off a standardized test being taken at a particular age and instead placed on a student being recognised as having achieved a standard when they are ready to achieve it, I believe we would find many more students becoming less disaffected with their education at such an early age and so achieving better results continually through their educational career.
High-stakes testing is unfair and unnecessary. Standardised testing that occurs frequently as and when the student wants it would aid motivation and student success as well as support students transitioning between schools whether that be as a result of a move or the transition from Primary to Secondary.


  1. Ian,

    I wish more teachers would blog about their personal observations and ideas for change. This is a great post and one that resounds with me on a number of levels. The cold, hard truth is that, as you say, the 'love of learning' evaporates when kids stop, "feeling successful. That failure or boredom was occurring more frequently than success." I suspect it is also to do with a sense of purpose. Who learns anything without a reason and for many, passing the test is just not a good enough motivation. We urgently need to use our new understandings of how people learn best and reform our systems and processes for the students navigating their way to Year 12.

  2. iwoods280710/5/11 21:28

    Going with personal experience, the youngsters I worked with in my Primary blocks and also my own littlies tended to get a great deal of satisfacion just from an adult being proud of them for their achievement. I wonder how long this continues in a child's life? Does it stop of it's own accord or is it 'negatively reinforced" out of them? I know that I still feel a sense of accomplishement having achieved an onerous task, but that that feeling is amplified if someone else also praises me for it.
    I keep typing and deleting bits a the moment and I have a wicked lag on the display updating... I have an idea that is something like using the power of social media tools (more like mathletics than facebook) that allows individual students, teachers and relevant adults to recognise and reward students for achievement. Starting kids from an early age at the practice of rewarding their peers for positive achievements. Celebrating class/school/cohort achievements online. Knowing that even if you are the last one in your class to hit a particular milestone, that there will be an awful lot of positive reinforcement coming your way when you actually achieve the goal. All these ideas are already being used somehow on the web. Why not incorporate them into some sort of massive online resume builder that recognises you achievements from Kindy upward and allows your peers and support network to cheer you on!
    Thanks for the comment.

  3. Antony Coleman10/5/11 22:12

    Great Blog Ian. I thoroughly agree with your assertion that students stop learning when they stop feeling successful. We need to constantly reward and celebrate all student's success. IMHO all students are learning, they simply reject some classrooms and content that we impose on them. Are schools becoming increasingly irrelevant to our students? How do we become more relevant and genuinely engage our students? These are the issues my school is currently grappling with.

  4. Great post Ian. So much of what you say rings true. So many of our students have lost the concept that education is a cumulative process - hence the need for us to attempt to reteach the 'old' before continuing with the 'new' and then needing to move on before the students get it.

    The Age vs Stage idea is something that we really need to see resolved. Can you think of any other area of life where you get to move on simply because you've done the time?