Letter to Editor: Testing times in primary schools nationwide

Letter to Editor: Testing times in primary schools nationwide

It is testing times in primary schools around the country. 

Testing for teachers who find that policy mandates them to reduce output at the end of the year to a number — a single STen score and upload it on the Pupil Online Database. 

Testing for children who don’t quite understand the meaning of “STens” but who do understand that it results in a number, a ranking system of performance and achievement. 

And testing for parents who can get quite frenzied over STen numbers as they equate high STen scores with future career success.

What a sad day for education that we have reduced our output at the end of the school year to a number — a number that will inevitably lead some children to feeling they don’t quite measure up to something they don’t fully understand. 

What we do in every classroom in every school across the country is so much more than what can be represented in a STen score.

However, if the only information byte that matters is a STen, an inherent value becomes associated with this score leading to a limited understanding of the function of assessment and restricting the assessment and recording of holistic, authentic and meaningful outputs in education. 

If a key goal of education is to nurture whole-rounded individuals by enabling them to develop an array of skills, values and competencies that facilitate lifelong learning, formal assessment and record procedures should surely seek more than STen scores or test results.

The need to reconsider test formats was recently acknowledged by Andreas Schleicher, director for the directorate of education and skills for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) — the organisation that administers the most prominent cross-comparative test in the world, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). 

He reported that PISA is moving from multiple choice formats to more adaptive, engaging formats. 

And in Singapore, the country that performs highest in PISA global tests, the minister of education announced in January of this year that there would be a reduction in standardised testing for students to better balance “process in learning” and “the joy of learning”. 

Finland is a country known for not having standardised tests, with the exception of one exam at the end of students’ secondary school year.

Over the past few decades in Ireland, the field of educational assessment has largely focused on measuring learners’ educational achievements and attainments. 

This is a direct result of policy which has perhaps unintentionally led to a clear message to all stakeholders that what is recorded on the national database are STen scores. 

Little emphasis has been placed on the measurement of pupils’ learning attitudes, their learning strategies and dispositions and their motivation for learning. 

Yet, in the unpredictable and ever-changing world of the 21st century, being able to measure learners’ qualitative characteristics may be more important than testing their quantitative capabilities. 

Changes are needed to ensure that educational assessment moves beyond measurements of attainment.

The use of formative assessment in primary school is advocated in NCCA Assessment policy documents and in the School Self-Evaluation (DES 2016) quality framework. 

Letter to Editor: Testing times in primary schools nationwide

Formative assessment informs learners “how to learn” and how they are progressing in striving to learn what they want. 

Formative assessment is associated with sustainable assessment — assessment practices that “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of students to meet their own future learning needs” (Boud, 2000). 

It is argued that individuals must have the ability to be assessors of learning if they are to become lifelong learners. 

In other words, the assessment practices utilised by teachers should be considered in terms of whether or not they prepare learners to assess their own learning in the future.

And so, as we process the STen score on the report card for yet another year, we should allow our thoughts tinker on what’s missing. 

STen scores focus on the end result of, the attainment level in a subject area — not the process, the effort or the perseverance of the learner. 

In the real world, learners require skills for challenging ill-defined problems, the ability to see things through, and the resilience to bounce back from setbacks. 

The real world requires the desire and the ability to do this over and over. 

And so our assessment tools, practices and records should be tracking from the outset the strengths, challenges, motivations, attitudes, skills, strategies and dispositions that enable a rich picture of emergent learner identity and learning skills for life.

Suzanne Parkinson

Educational psychologist

Mary Immaculate College

Limerick

This reader's opinion was originally published in the letters page of the Irish Examiner print edition on 20 May 2019.

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