Testing seems to be one of the most loaded terms in education. It comes with many a negative connotation and a whole raft of satirical cartoons. Indeed, I’ve seen first-hand what happens to the lovely, smiling members of my classes (not to mention me) during the GCSE years when faced with the horror of the English Language examination and it isn’t pretty. Yet allowing this to define our notion of testing in schools is at best simplistic and at its worst dangerous.
I work in a school where we test pupils at the end of every half term, followed by an end of year test which covers the material from the entirety of the year. Do we have a bunch of miserable, robotic, de-motivated pupils who have lost all chance to be creative? No, quite the opposite. So why is this?
Like most elements of schools, it comes down to ethos. The half-termly tests form part of our general assessment system, which is driven by the curriculum, NOT the other way around. The tests are one key way in which to build our understanding of how best to support all the children at our school to achieve excellence. We don’t use levels, instead after each test pupils are flagged as red, amber or green to identify how far they are on their way to securing key areas of knowledge as decided by subject leaders’ curriculum maps. [Curriculum maps are mapped from KS4 back down to Year 7. They are designed based on the new National Curriculum, iGCSE specifications or equivalent and additional subject material as determined by subject lead.]
We then use these results to inform conversations with the pupils, which happen after every test cycle, and to make individual targets with pupils to help them progress. Framed like this, the tests become a positive way to interact academically with our pupils. Reporting back successes to pupils boosts their determination to continue securing knowledge and to engage with further challenges. The conversations with those who haven’t quite grasped the material yet – or at least have not found a way to communicate this in their test – can also be extremely positive. They provide an opportunity to explore and reflect on where pupils went wrong and create specific targets. Most importantly they allow us to let the students know we’re there for them and that we’re not letting up in helping them to progress.
How Testing improves Teaching
Designing and evaluating tests is an interesting process as a teacher. Firstly it allows you to reflect on the effectiveness of your curriculum. Increasingly, curriculums are designed to provide academic stretch for pupils and the test can stand as a measure of how far this has been achieved over the term or year. With this in mind, our KS3 tests are deliberately designed to be challenging, with 1/3 at GCSE level or above. In English, this includes short answer and multiple-choice questions to allow for a factual recall alongside close text analysis and essay questions, which provide an opportunity for students to explore more abstract concepts. At the end of year test, pupils were asked to take on tasks such as explaining what a bildungsroman was; completing a poetic movements timeline; analysing the grammatical choices within an unseen extract from ‘1984’ and answering an essay question comparing how texts such as ‘Macbeth’ and Blake’s ‘London’ may provide a response to the year’s philosophical theme: ’How Should We Live?’. Designing tests with this level of demand is exciting and provides an opportunity to reflect on what you’re asking from your pupils.
Marking the tests provides a more developed insight into the impact of your teaching. You build up a clearer understanding of where your pupils are – not based on some generic notion of a level – but on a specific understanding of how far they have grasped the subject knowledge. This creates valuable insight into how to tweak future teaching.
Testing isn’t the bad guy
This year has taught me that testing as a concept is not the arch enemy of creativity, nor …
Click here to continue reading the remainder of this article freely in the November 2014 edition of UKEdMagazine
Summer is a Head of Faculty for English and Languages and leads on Teaching and Learning at East London Science School. She blogs about teaching at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find her on Twitter at @ragazza_inglese.