Assessment of primary pupils should help not hurt

 

Sir, – Carl O’Brien’s article “Primary school standardised tests causing ‘stress and anxiety’” (News, May 21st) is unsurprising given the misplaced emphasis placed on this singular form of assessment in our primary schools.

There is nothing wrong with standardised assessment. In itself and by itself, it serves a number of functions.

If constructed in a valid and reliable manner, standardised tests can provide benchmarks for parents and teachers. This allows parents and teachers to see how a student is doing compared to other students in his or her class, county and country. Standardised tests can help identify problem areas for individual students, as well as for schools and curriculums. Standardised tests give teachers a structure of what needs to be taught. This helps keep classroom material consistent across the country. Use of standardised tests prevents subjective grading. This helps to eliminate marking bias and ensures the rationale behind each test question.

However, use of standardised assessment alone, as the only measure to track student progress, is simply insufficient. In Ireland, it is mandatory for all schools to administer standardised testing in second, fourth and sixth classes and to report the findings to parents and the Department of Education on the Pupil Online Database.

In practice, most schools in Ireland administer standardised tests every year. This is problematic for several reasons. First, as the only score recorded on the Pupil Online Database is the standardised test score, assessment practices in schools often limit formal record keeping of test data to “Sten scores”. Little surprise then that pupils are stressed and parents are hassled as a single score emerges as a measure of output from school, each year across the school years.

And the conundrum in all of this is that such use of assessment leads to a limited understanding of the function of assessment and restricts the assessment and recording of holistic, authentic and meaningful outputs in education. If a key goal of education is to nurture rounded individuals by enabling them to develop an array of skills, values and competencies that facilitate lifelong learning, formal assessment and record procedures should seek more than Sten scores or test results.

Second, Ireland has a very limited number of context-valid standardised tests to choose from. Because there is such a limited set of tools to choose from, it is possible, even inadvertently, that teachers end up “teaching to the test” not because they intentionally set out to do so but because at this point they could recite the tests.

It is time to reconsider assessment and embed authentic and sustainable assessment practices in schools.

This is a question of balance. Standardised tests play a role. However, it is time to include the measurement of pupils’ learning attitudes, their learning strategies and dispositions and their motivation for learning. It is time to embrace sustainable assessment – assessment practices that enable individuals to be assessors of learning and lifelong learners. Reconsidering assessment as a process to help not hurt is needed now. Changes are needed to ensure that educational assessment moves beyond measurements of attainment.

Formative assessment in primary school is advocated in the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment policy documents and in the School Self-Evaluation (Department of Education 2016) quality framework. Formative assessment informs learners “how to learn” and how they are progressing in striving to learn what they want. And so our assessment tools, practices and records should be tracking from the outset the strengths, challenges, motivations, attitudes, skills, strategies and dispositions that enable a rich picture of emergent learner identity and learning skills for life.

New initiatives such as “My Learner ID”, which nurture the “who and how” of each learner and which elicit a learner ID profile, offer an opportunity to balance Sten scores and record the voice of each learner in becoming and being a learner.

Embracing a broader understanding of assessment, its uses and functions and adopting a balanced, empowering approach in our messaging to learners and parents should be at the forefront of practice in education and in educating learners for life. – Yours, etc,

Dr SUZANNE PARKINSON,

Educational Psychologist,

Mary Immaculate College,

Limerick.