Yesterday’s policy announcement by Mr Corbyn reignited the lively debate about the place of assessment in primary education. In response, I offer my own opinion.
Paper and pencil testing is an important component of assessment design because many children benefit from recalling and recording information. Furthermore, if a test is to be national and standardised, cost and organisation dictates that it is pencil and paper. Unfortunately, by making the test national, standardised and pass/fail, many children with excellent understanding and skills learn to perceive themselves as stupid. I am one of those people who would welcome the abolition of SATs not because there is anything wrong with them but because on their own they are a poor way of assessing a child. Whilst a significant proportion of children who benefit from tests also enjoy them, including SATs, there are an equally significant proportion to whose skills and understanding this form of assessment fails to do justice. If we abolish SATs but keep testing as one component of a far more intelligent assessment system, we can impact positively on the education of all.
Over the last 30 years, I have taught many children who have excellent memories and flourish in tests. I have taught children with a wide range of barriers to memorisation who struggle in tests. Some of this latter group had excellent understanding. I could assess this in different ways including their sense of humour where they understood meaning beyond the literal or plays on words at a young age. Some children who found memorisation difficult had brilliant spatial awareness. This is not about learning styles nor multiple intelligences. Rather, assessment design has to reflect the diversity within human beings and within child development. To place too much emphasis on the paper and pencil test or to use it as the single simple assessment tool undermines the education of many children.
An intelligent assessment design system is underpinned by the capacity of the school to get to know the child well. This begins with home visits before the child starts school. Understanding the child’s interests and development to that point enables the pedagogy and curriculum to fit the child not the other way round. Care should always be taken to ensure that visits to families should not be about judging the home. Early interactions should acknowledge that the parent is the expert on the child, albeit a subjective one, and that we need that expertise as much as parents need our collective subject knowledge, curriculum and pedagogy.
As the child grows, our understanding of them needs to be informed by a relationship that includes time to listen and observe as well as test against a curriculum designed to give children knowledge, understanding, skills and experiences. As well as clear modelling of concepts and well thought out questioning, there should be a real sense of purpose, audience and resource in order for the learning to tap into intrinsic motivation. A shared pride in a child’s achievement and a desire to take the next step should be the outcome of assessment not a grade nor a sticker. Subject specific pedagogy should bring the child and curriculum together so that talents can be celebrated beyond memorisation.
The arguments against a more nuanced primary assessment design is, include, that teachers do not have the time. I would argue that, whilst we are limited, knowing the children, listening to both them and their parents saves time in the long run because we stop wasting effort on making the child fit the pedagogy and the one style of test. It should not be for the individual teacher to know, celebrate and challenge the child but for the whole primary school community. Another argument is that the assessment described briefly above, as well as being idealistic, would be subjective and schools could not be judged on it. That being the case, perhaps it is time that schools were judged on an exam undertaken by staff (including headteachers) each summer to determine how well the school knows their children.