Lacy Chapman, Head of Lower School at ACS Cobham International School, explains why formal testing is killing curiosity.
A recent survey of school leaders has revealed that eight out of ten have seen an increase in mental health issues among primary school children during exam season.
It seems today’s highly pressurised system of testing is causing children as young as six to suffer stress at a time when they’re supposed to be learning to love school rather than fearing failure.
With wide-ranging pressures bearing down on children from both in and out of the classroom, a different approach which abandons the rigorous, formal testing must be considered if we are to protect their emotional wellbeing and encourage that essential love of learning.
Formal testing is killing curiosity
Standardised, national tests, like SATs or CAT tests, which require students to revise specific subjects for a formal exam are an unquestionable source of stress for young children. Being assessed in this formal manner places a huge amount of pressure on them at a very young age and stifles natural curiosity to learn. Rather than being encouraged to be inquisitive and creative, primary school children begin the constant treadmill of revision and restrictive, rigorous testing. From a young age, their learning becomes focused on passing tests, remembering grammatical rules or cramming facts.
And it’s not only students who are burdened by exams, but teachers and schools too. With league tables, parent expectations and increasingly high targets to be met, educators are under mounting pressure, which has a negative knock-on effect in the classroom. Formal testing is killing curiosity in primary school teaching and learning alike.
Rather than being encouraged to be inquisitive and creative, primary school children begin the constant treadmill of revision and restrictive, rigorous testing. From a young age, their learning becomes focused on passing tests, remembering grammatical rules or cramming facts.
How can they be fair?
Young children all learn in distinctive ways and at different rates, so how can these tests be fair to all? Children at that young age can find it difficult to sit still and they change from day to day. How can a test capture that changeability?
Children come to school with a wide range of achievements and individual qualities, but tests only look at a fraction of these. Many important skills such as self-confidence, curiosity, willingness to cooperate with others and independence, are not measured or tested at all.
Early literacy and numeracy are important, of course, but not at the exclusion of other foundation attributes, such as emotional security or personal development.
What’s the alternative?
There are alternatives to the system; where student progress is monitored but the damaging pressure of exams is off. Without other standardised tests being forced in primary schools, students, parents and teachers can escape the exam rat run and the competitive nature of the classroom.
At ACS, for example, we use MAP (Measure of Academic Progress) testing in lower school years to monitor student progress. These ‘smart’ tests are taken by students on a computer each year. As students move through the test, the computer programme will ask and adjust questions based on the individual’s ability, so they are different for each child.
With the national system, teachers have so many targets to hit; ‘pupils must read at this age’, ‘spell their name by age 4’, which means as soon as a reception-aged child walks through the door, they must practice writing their name. At ACS, each child gets the individual attention they need to thrive and progress at their own speed. MAP testing allows us to do this and monitor progress, identifying where an individual needs extra support, or differentiating tasks for those who particularly excel. We also help students make their own choices about their classwork, helping to identify which task is best suited to them.
At ACS, each child gets the individual attention they need to thrive and progress at their own speed.
We still offer a developmentally challenging and rigorous programme, but it’s a personalised and inquiry-based approach developed to suit our different types of learners, and emphasise creative and critical thinking over high-stakes assessment.
Testing without the stress
There is also no time limit on MAP tests and because each test for each child is different, they can’t revise for it. All we say to parents is that they try and help students get a good night’s sleep beforehand and a good breakfast to set them up for the day.
Using MAP testing we can see the growth in each student as they move through each year group, without the pressure of revision or rigorous exams.
Students are not just measured on their academic progress, but also against our school learning outcomes – we want each child to develop as confident individuals, effective learners and caring contributors. And surely nurturing a child’s well-being, promoting positive personal development and fostering a curious mind is what primary education is all about?
This article first appeared in Independent Education Today.