More than one in four principals say schools feel pressure from parents to raise children’s standardised test scores, with levels of stress and anxiety especially evident in more middle-class schools.
Standardised tests – used to measure children’s progress in reading and maths – are mandatory at primary school in second, fourth and sixth class. Children typically receive a “Sten” score on a 10-point scale.
The findings are contained in the latest results from a landmark longitudinal study, Children’s School Lives, undertaken by UCD’s school of education, which is following 4,000 children across almost 200 schools.
There was widespread agreement across parents, teachers and principals that standardised tests were only one component to assess children’s learning.
However, parents reported that while children did not feel worried about assessment in the early years of primary school, they grew more anxious in senior classes as the demands of the curriculum increased.
While for some children testing demonstrated their “smartness” and growing confidence, up to a third felt anxious about their performance which was often linked to a sense of failure.
More than a quarter of principals said teachers feel pressure from parents to raise test scores, with stress and anxiety especially evident in more middle-class schools.
In addition, the study – commissioned by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment – found reports of teachers’ anxiety about test results have risen over time, with up to a third feeling that their performance was also being evaluated during standardised testing.
The cancellation of standardised tests during the pandemic led to a welcome removal of expectations, according to many principals who said they did not have to communicate scores to parents and manage their expectations.
“If a Sten score had gone down there would very much be ‘I’d like to have a word. I want to know why. I’m concerned.’ . . . the children, they’re not doing the Leaving Cert, but it nearly felt as though there was a . . . they obviously wanted to do very, very well.”
“I think . . . that having to report results has done huge damage over the years,” said another principal. “So, we decided this year now . . . we’re not doing them . . . we’re only doing them in classes that we’re supposed to do them in.”
The study also examined attitudes to homework, which tended to be viewed by parents as an important indicator of how children were progressing in school.
However, it was also experienced as a challenge in busy households, even in junior classes.
Parents of younger children expressed strong preferences for homework as an important element of education to reinforce learning and described positive family dynamics when doing homework.
These preferences and positive attitudes declined as children progressed through primary school as children showed more resistance towards homework.
Positive relationships between families and school communities was regarded as a key element to support children’s engagement with homework.
Another section of the study shows the challenges posed by school closures and remote learning during the pandemic.
Maths and Irish were the most challenging subjects for children as these required the expertise of teachers for the content to be adequately taught.
Teachers spent more time than pre-lockdown on English, maths and social, personal and health education (SPHE) on return to school, seemingly at the expense of subjects such as religious education and social, environmental and scientific education (SESE).
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