Primary school standardised tests causing ‘stress and anxiety’

Pressure to perform can lead to pupils being ‘taught to the test’, study finds

Standardised tests in primary schools are causing stress and anxiety and resulting in many pupils being “taught to the test”, a new study has found.

Standardised testing in Irish primary schools has become increasingly prominent over the past decade or so.

All schools are now required to administer standardised reading and maths tests, such as the Drumcondra Test, in second, fourth and sixth classes and to report the findings to parents and the Department of Education.

However, the first large-scale study which sought the views of more than 1,500 teachers indicates that, while the tests are a valuable tool for assessment, they are also linked to unintended negative consequences .

Some teachers were aware of questionable test preparation practices – such as “teaching to the test” and grinds – and reported anxiety among pupils and pressure to perform.

Most teachers said they felt pressure from within themselves or from parents to improve their pupils’ standardised test scores.

Three out of every four teachers agreed that some pupils in their classes were extremely anxious about taking standardised tests and about half felt that parents took the results of standardised tests too seriously.

While many agreed that standardised test results should be reported to parents, some expressed uncertainty about whether or not parents understood the meaning of test scores.

Validity disputed

A notable finding was the diversity of opinion expressed about different aspects of standardised testing.

Some felt the tests were a valid way of measuring achievement in maths and English reading, while others did not.

The appropriateness and value of standardised testing in disadvantaged schools and for decision-making about pupils with special needs was called into question by some teachers.

The need for professional development across a range of topics pertinent to standardised testing was highlighted.

Prof Michael O’Leary, director of the centre for assessment research policy and practice at DCU’s institute of education, said it was clear standardised testing had an increased status in the primary system.

“Many teachers have real concerns about its impact. The findings give educators and policymakers much food for thought,” he said.

Dr Deirbhile Nic Craith, director of education and research in the Irish National Teachers' Organisation, said the results identified the challenges experienced by teachers.

“Put simply, the report highlights the need for clarity on policy and practice when it comes to assessment and standardised testing in primary schools,” she said.

Numerical reporting

The research makes a number of policy recommendations, including changing the timing of the testing from summer to the autumn to alleviate the pressure felt by teachers and pupils.

It also proposes updating standardised tests more regularly and said the reporting of standardised test as individual numbers on report cards should be discontinued.

Instead, it says test scores should be communicated in writing as part of a “narrative text” that describes pupil performance, interprets it in light of other assessments and acknowledges the imprecise nature of all standardised test scores.

The study also proposes a programme of professional development focused on improving teachers’ assessment literacy more generally.

There is a need for “rigorous validity studies of all standardised tests in use in Irish primary schools to ensure that the tests remain relevant and their impact on teaching and learning [is] understood”.