Standardised tests heap anxiety on primary school children. Do we really them?

Opinion: They don’t reflect a child’s creativity, disposition or work ethic. It's time for reform

Expecting children to sit still for long periods of time to complete formal assessments that may not suit their learning style is an antiquated practice in 2021. Photograph: iStock

Expecting children to sit still for long periods of time to complete formal assessments that may not suit their learning style is an antiquated practice in 2021. Photograph: iStock

 

It is that time of year again in the primary school calendar where standardised tests in English and maths are administered with the intention of determining the ability of children in relation to their classmates and their peers nationally.

At the best of times, standardised testing can cause anxiety among students, teachers, and parents alike - but in a year of lockdowns where a significant amount of classroom-based teaching had to be replaced with online learning, this pressure is perhaps even more potent.

Last year, the Department of Education called for all standardised testing to be cancelled due to the loss of in-class teaching time as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, the testing is going ahead as usual this year. The Department of Education requires all primary schools to administer standardised tests in second class, fourth class and sixth class with many schools choosing to administer the assessments to first, third and fifth class also.

The results of the tests must be communicated and explained to parents and uploaded to the national database for viewing by the Department of Education. After testing, parents are provided with results in the form of a simple Sten (standard ten) score of 1-10 (1 signifies well below average ability and 10 signifies exceptional ability).

Pressure

The first large-scale study which sought the views of more than 1,500 teachers in relation to standardised testing was undertaken by researchers at DCU in 2019, led by Prof Michael O’Leary.

The study found that some teachers felt that the standardised test results of their class were a reflection of their own teaching proficiency and that there was pressure to get results.

The study found that 44 per cent of respondents indicated that they spent some class time revising curriculum topics relevant to the standardised test. This highlights that some teachers are so concerned with getting results that they “teach to the test” in some form.

This, in turn, leads to an inevitable narrowing of the curriculum, as less time and focus is given to other curricular areas. If some educators adapt the curriculum content to suit the purpose of a national testing program, then other subjects are going to suffer. The fixation on test scores restricts the creativity of teachers and students and limits the ways in which students can experience success.

Anxiety

A landmark study - Children’s School Lives - which is being carried out by researchers at UCD’s school of education is tracking 4,000 children across almost 200 schools up until the year 2025.

Latest research from this shows that almost half of teachers feel that standardised testing causes anxiety among children and parents. The weight currently placed on standardised testing has resulted in an inflated value being placed on scores by parents and students.

The very nature of this form of assessment is that it focuses on how a child is performing in relation to their classmates, which can lead to students being labelled or categorised by their test score.

This narrow view of a child’s capabilities has the potential to be damaging to their self-esteem. It does not give the broader picture of the many learning milestones that the child achieves throughout the school year.

The topic of standardised testing is one that often generates discussion and debate in the realm of education. I am currently completing a thesis on the topic of teachers’ perceptions of standardised testing as the focal form of assessment at primary level.

Expecting children to sit still for long periods of time to complete formal assessments that may not suit their learning style is perhaps an antiquated practice in 2021.

Effort

My view is that while standardised testing can give the teacher a point of reference, it does not provide a true reflection of a child’s overall ability. For example, standardised testing does not measure a child’s level of effort in the classroom and it does not consider that the child may have strengths in other curricular areas such as the arts, science or physical education.

Expecting children to sit still for long periods of time to complete formal assessments that may not suit their learning style is perhaps an antiquated practice in 2021. This has been highlighted by the creative ways teaching and learning has progressed during this pandemic. Children can demonstrate their learning through audio recordings, project work, oral presentations and video collages to name but a few.

We need to ask ourselves some searching questions. Is standardised testing really appropriate or necessary considering the incredibly difficult year that teaching and learning has faced? Should we refrain from labelling children with a number this year, and perhaps any year? Should there now be a shift towards continuous assessment, similar to the reformed secondary school system? Should we not instead be celebrating students’ resilience and progress (no matter how small) despite the difficult conditions that changed the way the curriculum was delivered and accessed this year?

At the best of times standardised testing does not acknowledge a child’s creativity, disposition, or work ethic; nor does it accommodate the various learning styles and additional needs of pupils in the primary classrooms across the country. It is time for reform. Our children are so much more than a number.

Aoife McCloskey (BA (Hons), Hdip, MEd) is a primary school in Tullow, Co. Carlow