Tag Archives: test

Testing Times

2 May

There was a pretty significant announcement by the Welsh Government today about future changes to the testing regime in Welsh education.  I have to say this is a relatively positive story for the Welsh Government.  Discussing these tests in any format can make for uncomfortable media coverage for them.  Teachers, parents and pupils have been consistently and vocally opposed to them, and what has been proposed is certainly not going to address all the concerns, but it is fair to say they will be met more positively than anything else.  With that in mind I found it a little odd it was announced during the election period and will no doubt therefore get lost in other news agendas.  Maybe I’m thinking too Machiavellian about this but it could lead people to think that for some reason the Welsh Government saw it as a controversial climb down and didn’t want the focus that could be given outside this period?  Given these changes would come into effect for the May 2018 tests there’s no reason I can think of for delaying this news a few weeks.  In fairness, as I say, perhaps I am overthinking it.  It just seemed a missed opportunity to build a positive news story.

So what are the changes?

The main two things to note are that the tests will be moving online, with automatic marking taking place, and that the tests will be adaptive to the capabilities of students.  I’m going to look at these individually and assess why they are important.

Online

Moving the tests to an online system is something unions called for before the testing regime was even introduced.  This style of testing has the potential to significantly reduce the workload burden for teachers, both in the administration of the testing and certainly in terms of the many hours they are currently setting aside to mark the tests.  If the future model ensures that pupils are able to take the tests at a computer with the evaluation of results generated automatically that could make a noticeable difference to the pressure put on teachers, freeing up a lot of time for them to actually spend teaching and planning their lessons.  Of course it remains to be seen if this reduces the huge amount of time currently being set aside in schools to prepare pupils for these tests.

Another potential benefit is that we are moving pupils on to interactive and digital learning in another format.  Given the importance of IT in education and our society that is no bad thing, and reflects the focus this is being given through the digital framework.  Of course the flip side of this is the resources.  Many teachers will certainly be alarmed at the news as they will question the capacity of their school to be able to deliver online testing given the deficiency of IT equipment they have, or do not have, available to them.

Adaptive

Having a testing system which is adaptive is also a big step forward.  Perhaps the most worrying concern that I have heard from teachers in regards to these tests is that pupils have felt utterly demoralised by them.  Having an adaptive tests allows pupils of all capabilities to work through them at an appropriate level.  They will still test children but hopefully in a way that encourages, rather than belittles, their engagement with the learning process.  It could mean that instead of these tests leaving pupils emotionally upset and disengaged from school they are instead able to take some positives from them and progress.

Of course the above changes do not change my own skeptical view that these tests are ot needed.  I remain of the view that the tests do not provide teachers with any new information that they would not already have, or indeed be able to ascertain in a more natural and progressive learning environment.  However, I do believe these changes will improve the current system.  It remains to be seen if that expectation is met.  I have run annual surveys seeking teacher feedback since the tests were first introduced.  I will do so again next year and it will be interesting to find out if the changes have made an impact at a classroom level.

Another Test

15 May

Sometimes when discussing education policy it is all too easy to drift away from the human aspect of what we do.  In fact one of the main complaints I hear from teachers is that we are dehumanizing pupils due to the obsession with data modern education systems have been infected with.  There is less and less focus on how John, Jim or Jenny are feeling and developing and more on how many children from gender/socio-economic background X have reached level Y.  That is really quite depressing for those teachers that went into the profession to change the lives of children.

One area where this sometimes happens is in discussing testing.  That sterile approach was challenged last year when NUT Cymru produced the feedback on a survey I conducted of teachers about standardised literacy and numeracy testing.  The uncomfortable human impact of this policy was all to clear to see.

I just thought I would blog briefly to draw attention to this piece by Cathy Owen in the Western Mail.  It is worth a read.  Not only does it offer a personal view from a parent it also reinforces the view that most educationists have long since accepted, which is that a standardised test does not fit all individuals equally and in many cases offers a badly misleading view of the capabilities of a child.  Something we should keep in mind as schools again undertake those annual exams.

What the profession think of standardised tests in Wales – Part I

4 Nov

Last week I blogged on how there isn’t parental support for the Welsh Government’s standardised testing regime.  In that post I noted a survey of teachers that had been conducted and that I would be covering the responses in more detail.

The first thing to note is some of the headline figures that show exactly how unpopular this policy is.

  • 96.35% do not think the tests have been a positive experience for pupils. (+3.11%)
  • 70.81% do not believe the tests are consistent with the curriculum. (+7.06%)
  • 82.82% say workload is up as a result of the tests. (+4.29%)
  • 87.36% say tests have impacted negatively on pupil stress levels. (+5.29%)

As you can see these are staggeringly depressing figures that really demonstrate how disillusioned the sector is with the policy.  Looking at these figures it is very hard to see how the initiative can be a success given the strength of feeling in opposition to it.  The Welsh Government never sold teachers on the need for this style of testing; the implementation has been very poor and the concerns that have been raise, for the most part, have not been given adequate attention.  The figures in brackets denote a change in views since the same survey was conducted in 2013.  Across all these crucial indicators it is clear to see that not only has the scepticism of teachers not been won over it has increased.

It is also interesting to look at the issue of parental support in light of the responses on that to the survey.  Asked about feedback from parents teachers stated that:

  • It was wholly or mostly negative 29.46% (+12.51%)
  • It was wholly or mostly positive 0.85% (-0.84%)
  • Mixed 20.96% (+5.99%),
  • There was no feedback 48.73% (-17.65%)

Again the figures in brackets show the change from the 2013 survey.  It is very odd then that the Welsh Government have claimed they are seeing positive support from parents in relation to these tests when at the same time teachers are reporting that more and more parents are responding negatively.  In fact there was less than 1% positive feedback.  Of course it could very well be that parents, instead of telling the teachers they know and have relationships with, they are opting to tell the Welsh Government directly.  That seems a little bit of a stretch, especially when we know they have not done so through any emails or letters.

Ultimately the Welsh Government will stand by these tests as they claim that they will support standards.  But is that a view shared by the experts that work in classrooms day in day out?

  • 87.57% do not believe that the tests will lead to improved pupil attainment (-1.98%)
  • 90.14% do not believe the tests have provided new information about pupils (-1.99%)

As you can see there is little belief that these test either offer any new information about pupils or will lead to better standards.  Admittedly, there is a slight drop in the pessimism here from last year.  However with both indicators above the 87% mark it is hardly a cause for celebration.  Clearly not only have the tests proved incredibly unpopular they have little chance, if present views are to be believed, of convincing the profession of success in future.

The final point of interest from the data concerns the funding for the tests.  One of the issues that teachers have raised is that they have found the tests, the preparation and the delivery, are costing money for schools.  In a new question asked this year we surveyed if the profession believed the Welsh Government had attached the right levels of funding to this policy.  87% did not believe this was the case.

I accept one of the criticisms of the survey in that it is a small sample.  360 teachers took part.  I would argue that a standard opinion poll size would be around 1,000 individuals to give a reflection of the views of millions of voters.  In that regards 360 reflecting a few ten thousand teachers is somewhat comparable.  Still, it is a valid point.  What I would also argue is that this is not the first poll on this issue.  This is a repeat of the survey conducted last year which had a similar number of responses.  It is also true that other groups have conducted surveys which have similar responses.  There is then a bank of evidence being collated.  Also the percentage of responses is noticeable.  When you are talking about 80-90% views the strength of feeling is clear.  This may be a relatively small sample but it is none the less an important snapshot of where we are at with this policy.

These are all the findings of the quantitative data from the survey.  In stark black and white it is fair to say the picture is bleak.  I will be posting later in the week details of the qualitative feedback which, I’m afraid to say, makes for even more depressing, and at times upsetting, reading.

Do parents support Welsh standardised testing?

29 Oct

At the start of the month the standardised literacy and numeracy tests once again came in for criticism.  They have proved highly controversial and have regularly been a topic of concern for teachers.  One thing that really stood out to me in the piece in the Western Mail was the Welsh Government’s assertion that;

“We’ve also seen a similarly positive response from parents regarding testing at the end of the Foundation Phase.”

This just didn’t sit right with me I have to say.  One of the big messages that I have had when speaking to teachers is the way parents have been angry at the impact the tests have had on pupil well-being.  Teachers have faced a big backlash from parents who have felt their children have been left marginalised and disengaged from education as a result of these tests.

Last year, and again repeated this year, I conducted a survey of teachers in Wales* on a range of issues relating to the tests.  One of the questions asked if the individuals responding had received feedback from parents in relation to the tests.  It also asked if that feedback had been wholly or mostly positive; wholly or mostly negative or mixed. In 2013 the significant majority (66%) was from those who had no contact over the test.  After that it was 17% negative; 2% positive and 15% mixed.  Hardly a ringing endorsement from parents for this policy.  Fast forward to 2014 and no contact was still the most noted response, albeit down to 48%.  The numbers having negative feedback had increased to 30%; positive was down to just under 1% while mixed was also up, reaching 21%.

Curious as to how the Welsh Government felt they were on sure footing with parental support I could only assume that they had been receiving correspondence that contradicted what I and teachers I had spoken to were seeing.  I put a freedom of information request in to find out.  In it I asked for;

“all copies of correspondence (emails and letters) to the Education Minister in relation to the standardised literacy and numeracy tests from individuals or groups designating themselves as schools, teachers, trade unions, school governors and/or parents between 1st May 2013 and 1st October 2014.”

To my surprise, or rather not, there was not a single piece of correspondence from a parent backing these tests.  In fact, as you will see from the response I received here, the contrary is true.  The only parental feedback that was received by the Welsh Government was negative with parents highlighting the exact concerns about well-being that have been brought up time and again by the profession.

Interestingly enough it now appears the government line has changed.

*Details of the survey were covered today by the BBC.  I will be blogging in-depth about the findings next week.

The case for creative education

29 Jul

Sir-Ken-Robinson-Credit-Martin-Mancha-2

“We are educating people out of their creative capacities.” — Ken Robinson

I was listening recently to these three excellent presentations by Sir Ken Robinson.

I was particularly interested in the concerns Sir Ken had about how education policies in the USA, although you could argue globally, are leading to a reduction in creative thinking within schools. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) disciplines are clearly vitally important to both children’s development and the wider economy. There is, rightly, a focus on literacy and numeracy in schools in Wales. But as Sir Ken states, they are important but they are not sufficient to a rounded education. Just because we have a focus on STEM disciplines doesn’t mean we should ignore the creative subjects of arts, music and so forth. These subjects not only actually help develop the way pupils think, complimenting the focus on literacy and numeracy, but also speak to the creative parts of a child’s mind that otherwise will remain inactive. Marginalising creative subjects is educating the imagination out of individuals. Failing to stimulate the minds of pupils will quickly switch them off education and therefore hinder any progress in literacy and numeracy, as well as contributing to generational problems with disengagement with the school system.

In speaking about this disengagement Sir Ken notes that America has a high level of pupil drop out, especially in comparison to Finland whose creative education ensures very low numbers falling through the cracks. On a positive note absenteeism and individuals leaving school without qualifications are both going in the right direction here in Wales. However, we are at a crossroads in educational policy and must consider the wider implications of a narrow focus leading to that work potentially being undone. Feedback from teachers who have recently conducted the standardised literacy and numeracy tests suggest the impact on students well-being, and their investment in the school community, has been alarming. A further point made in these presentations is the impact of standardised testing and how instead of supporting education it often obstructs it, echoing the blog post I previously published here. Sir Ken is completely correct when he highlights that standardised testing has its place, but they should be diagnostic supporting education rather than driving the direction it takes.

All the high performing nations in the world do two things. They offer a creative approach to education, individualising teaching and learning. Secondly they empower schools by accepting the discretion and professional judgments of teachers. Those nations that have moved to a system where creativity is stifled by standardisation and where teacher’s freedoms has been undermined by an approach of central government imposed regulation, are seeing a decline in quality. An important consideration for us here in Wales.

I’d very much recommend listening to Sir Ken Robinson’s presentations as he puts the above points across far better than I and presents in a very funny and engaging way.

Testing Times

22 Jul

standardised-test-3

I’ve used the above cartoon before after seeing it during a lecture by Pasi Sahlberg. I think it very simply highlights some of the unfair, if unintended, problems with standardised testing.

I’ve recently been reading the excellent critique of standardised testing, ‘Education by Numbers; The Tyranny of Testing’, by Warwick Mansell. While the content is focussed largely on the testing regime of English schools during the New Labour years, the warnings it offers about the impacts of these policies are very apt for us in Wales.  One of the key questions asked in the book, which is often echoed amongst practicing teachers, is “where is the independent evidence that hyper-accountability has improved education?”  After several cross examinations of results the chapter dedicated to this question concludes;

“Pursuing results almost as ends in themselves has been forced on schools, in their desperation to fulfil the requirements of hyper-accountability.  But this grades race is ultimately self-defeating.  It does not guarantee better-educated pupils, just better statistics for schools and the government.”

This is a very important point.  In Wales we do of course have this style of tests for literacy and numeracy for all pupils from year 2 – 9. Pasi Sahlberg has already warned it’s destined to fail.  While it is inevitable that schools and pupils, and potentially the Welsh Government, will be judged on an annual basis on performance in these tests I’m not convinced that the abilities of children will improve as a result.  As the saying goes “weighing a pig doesn’t fatten it.”

There is a lot that can be done to support teachers and pupils in improving numeracy and literacy standards.  Some of it is being implemented by the Welsh Government.  Some of it is not.  However, it is hard to find many, if any, teachers that are working on the front line in classrooms who believe that these tests will contribute positively to that aspiration.  At least now they have seen the tests in action.  While I have no idea of the results of this years standaridsed tests, and can’t predict the future, I would suggest that in time results will improve.  Will that mean that standards have improved?  Possibly, but the reality in regards to the test scores is that children and teachers ability to work towards the tests will be the determining factor in achieving the highest scores.

NUT Cymru have been consulting with our members and the feedback has been enlightening. From the impact of the tests on parental relationships, content, workload and most importantly how the tests have been received by pupils and what the pedagogical impact has been, the results have been wide-ranging. What has been pleasing for those that have opposed the introduction of these tests in Wales is the commitment given in a recent Ministerial Statement that the new Education Minister is willing to look constructively at feedback. While this may not, at least in the short-term, lead to the tests being abolished, it will hopefully address some of the specific concerns about the implementation and nature of these specific tests.

For further reading there are two really excellent articles on this theme on the CEA website here and here.