‘These tests do not assess what makes you special and unique’
A teacher’s note about the Drumcondra Test has got the nation talking about what standardised tests really measure
Standarised tests are widely used to measure children’s performance in comparison with the wider school population. Photograph: iStock
A note from a class teacher to her students got the attention of the nation this week.
In it, the teacher told her students that the standardised tests they were about to take would not define who they really are.
“Dear students,” read the letter from Ms Lynch to her third-class students at Rathbeggan National School, Co Meath.
“Tomorrow you will take your Drumcondra maths test. I know how hard you’ve worked but there’s something very important you must know. These tests do not assess all of what makes you special and unique.
“The people who create these tests and score them do not know each of you like I do and certainly not the way your families do.
“They do not know that some of you speak two or more languages or that you love to sing or draw. They have not seen your natural talent for dancing or gymnastics or football.
“They do not know that your friends count on you to be there for them, that your laughter can brighten the darkest day or that your face turns red when you feel shy.
“They do not know that you participate in sports, wonder about the future or sometimes you help with your little brother or little sister after school.
“They do not know that you are kind, trustworthy and thoughtful and every day you try your very best. The scores you will get from these tests will tell you something but they will not tell you everything. These tests do not define you.”
“There are many ways of being smart. You are smart. You are enough. You are the light that brightens my day and the reason I am happy to come to work each day so in the midst of all of these tests, remember that there’s no way to test all of the amazing and awesome things that make you, you.”
It’s a reminder that exam season can creep its way into even our youngest children. And from this comes children stressed, parents stressed, teachers stressed.
Standardised tests in English reading and maths are aimed at measuring your child’s achievement compared to other children in schools at the same class or age level.
Your child typically completes standardised tests towards the end of 2nd, 4th and 6th classes.
The teacher uses so-called “Sten” scores to tell you how your child fares in the tests. These scores range from one to 10.
One to three is deemed “well below average”; four is “low average”; five to six is “average”; seven is “high average”; and eight to ten is “well above average”.
They can cause anxiety in both children and parents, which is why Prof Michael O’Leary, an assessment expert based at DCU, takes great delight in the message Ms Lynch has highlighted over how we assess our children.
“You will never make important decisions about anyone who is a learner based on one piece of information,” he says.
“And a Sten score from a standardised test is just one piece of information. It’s a very useful piece, but it’s only useful in comparison to other bits of information and especially information Ms Lynch talked about.
“And that’s what is so lovely about her note. A test can never tell you how well a child is feeling on the day. How much pressure the child felt wanting to do well on the test. Whether a child is completely and absolutely distracted. Or whether they even care about it.”
If these Drumcondra tests cause so much worry, why are teachers using them?
Prof O’Leary says a big advantage of standardised tests is that you can compare children from one place to another, and it gives you a sense of how they stand in comparison.
“What we are looking for from them is information that will allow us to teach our children better and as policymakers that will let us make better decisions about our schools,” he says.
But for Prof O’Leary, a change of mindset is needed for these tests to work more effectively.
For that to happen we must recognise the importance of teacher assessments and observations, an idea Ms Lynch was reminding to her pupils.
“Parents will think very traditionally” O’Leary says. “They will see a test result as more important than teacher judgement. That is not the case. The test result can only ever be interpreted well in conjunction with teacher assessments.
“Ms Lynch is absolutely right – she will know her kids better than any test. The trouble, though, is the mention of a Sten score can completely dominate a parent’s thinking.
“The reason it dominates is because that’s what they grew up with. They’ve never grown up with teacher judgements. It’s Leaving Cert results, and Inter Cert results – it’s a tough job to persuade people of the notion that we need a balance.”
Helping teachers teach better
One way of changing this mindset for Prof O’Leary is telling parents and children the purpose of the test. It shouldn’t be about tricking anyone, catching them out or punishing them – but to help inform decisions.
Prof O’Leary reflects on what he told his own class before taking these tests to explain this idea. He told them;
“What I’m doing tomorrow is I’m giving you a test. I want you to do the best you can, because if you do the best you can, then I will be able to teach you better.”
He says if that is the foremost message of a standardised test like what Ms Lynch has written, that is quite a different message being sent out.
“It’s saying to them, ‘this test is not going to define you. This test is going to be one more piece of information that will help me to teach you better’.”
Gerry Shiel of the Educational Research Centre – which devised the Drumcondra standardised tests – says teacher-based assessments already feature strongly at primary level.
“On the end-of-year school report, many teachers issue a grade (based on a child’s performance across the school year) and a standardised test result,” he says.
“This recognises the fact that only some aspects of the curriculum can be assessed on standardised tests [for example, oral language and writing are typically not assessed by standardised tests].”
“The use of grades [based on continuous assessment over the school year] and standardised test scores is intended to provide a fuller picture of a child’s strengths and challenges.”
Student portfolios, teacher-designed tests and checklists, documented observations and curriculum profiles are all examples of non-standardised assessment in practice at primary school, Shiel notes.
If there is a takeaway point, it’s this: standardised tests should be used along with many other pieces of information to give a better picture of a child’s achievements. Not just what the child knows, but what we know about the child.
And as Ms Lynch says, “there are many ways of being smart”. * The National Council of Curriculum and Assessment has produced a parents’ guide to standardised testing, available here