Standardised tests - such as those often referred to in primary schools as the Sigmas, Micras and Drumondras - routinely attract bad press, not least at this time of year when 2nd, 4th and 6th class children are taking them.
We know from recent research of more than 1,500 primary teachers nationally that these tests can cause stress, anxiety and pressure for adults and pupils alike.
Research, conducted jointly by DCU's Centre for Assessment Research, Policy and Practice and the INTO, reported in 2019 that three out of every four teachers surveyed indicated that some pupils in their classes became very anxious when taking the tests, with 26 per cent agreeing that, as the stakes associated with these tests has increased, so too has the potential for "teaching to the test" . This signals the perceived pressure felt by some teachers to ensure their pupils perform well.
In response, the purpose and value of standardised tests is often questioned with some calling for reform, opining that "they don't reflect a child's creativity, disposition or work ethic".
In this context, curriculum reform being led by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), in concert with the Department of Education and stakeholders nationally, is noteworthy.
Amongst the key principles underpinning the development of the revised national curriculum is reiteration of a commitment to conceptualising all assessments (whether formative, diagnostic or summative) as part of a continuum of assessment practices, each of which is integral to good teaching and learning.
Why is this important and relevant? Well, because this provides a context for the norm-referenced standardised achievement tests currently underway, or recently completed, in primary schools across the country.
These tests provide unique information (permitting national comparisons of pupil achievement by age and/or class), information that is used, in tandem with other assessment information that teachers record over the course of the school year, to support informed decision-making about pupils’ needs and the nature and extent of supports and resources provided by schools and the Department.
Hence, the more important question to ask is not should we test or not but how to do so fairly to ensure confidence in the results? Ironically (because this is often overlooked), the answer to this question is implied in their official name: “norm-referenced standardised achievement tests”.
By design, the Sigmas, Micras and Drumondras are norm-referenced: the “norm” group is the sample of pupils (often several thousand) who take the test when it is being developed - a group that is carefully chosen to represent the population of children nationally in terms of gender, social-economic status, rural or urban location and so forth.
The test results of this norm group are used to create standardised scores which allow teachers to determine how their class performed relative to their peers nationally, information which is shared at parent-teacher meetings and via report cards at least once annually.
The word “standardised” underscores the point that these tests are constructed and intended to be administered, and the results interpreted, in a standard manner.
As detailed in the manuals that accompany the test booklets, the expectation is that every teacher, irrespective of context, follows strictly a set of directions regarding test preparation, time allocation and supports offered during testing and so on, when administering the tests.
This is essential if fair comparison is to be made subsequently based on the results and why practices such as “teaching to the test” is so problematic; in effect, it can invalidate the test results.
The final point to note is that these are achievement tests - designed to measure what a pupil has learned in specific areas of the curriculum - English reading, mathematics and Irish reading (if attending a gaelscoil) - based on what is taught in school.
Hence, while a pupil’s achievement may be informed by his/her ability in reading or aptitude for maths, this is not what is measured by norm-referenced achievement tests, as is sometimes suggested incorrectly.
Returning to the issue of fairness and confidence in test results, albeit an obvious benefit of norm-referenced standardised achievement tests is that they allow us to compare and rank pupils nationwide, like all assessments, these tests contain some degree of inaccuracy (also referred to as error).
Due to a variety of factors, some test-related (e.g., how up-to-date the test is; what test questions are used), others pupil-related (e.g., how a pupil is feeling on the day of the test), test performance may fluctuate. In light of this, teachers are encouraged to calculate a range of scores within which a pupil’s “true score” (something we can never know precisely) is likely to lie.
Further, teachers consider these test results in the round, that is, in the context of what they know of a pupil’s “typical” performance in class. Where significant anomalies in test results arise, teachers often consult a pupil’s test booklet to understand the apparent inconsistencies in performance and use this information diagnostically to identify the pupil’s strengths and needs.
This diagnostic potential of norm-referenced standardised achievement tests is frequently unacknowledged by test critics, nor is it explained that not all pupils are required to take the tests. Although schools are mandated to administer these tests annually to pupils in 2nd, 4th and 6th class and report the results to parents/guardians and the Department, provision is made for teachers to exempt a pupil from testing altogether if, for example, s/he has special educational needs or English is not a pupil’s first language, factors that might negatively impact test performance and cause undue stress and anxiety.
So, rather than castigating norm-referenced standardised achievement tests out of hand, it would be prudent to consider them in context and rather than inflate pupils’ stress and anxiety unnecessarily remind pupils, and each other, that these tests provide a useful and important snapshot of their achievement, nothing more or less.
Dr Zita Lysaght is an assistant professor in the School of Policy and Practice at DCU’s Institute of Education