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Testing times

Frances Mwale, Prep Headmistress at Farlington School, discusses Key Stage 1 testing

Posted by Charley Rogers | November 06, 2017 | Teaching

An abiding memory of mine from my junior school days was a whole saga concerning Wonderplast. The latest craze for children my age, you could shape it, fiddle with it, make it bounce and blow great bubbles, popping them with an extraordinarily loud pop. Wonderplast preoccupied my thoughts and my break times were filled with creatively finding new things to make with this innovative putty. Then one day my pot went missing. I was thrown. I asked a girl called Jo if she had seen my yellow Wonderplast and she replied that she had not, but with a wicked smile across her face. I accused Jo of stealing it. Bags were searched; innocents interrogated and then, oh horror, it turned out that my father, feeling the toy was a complete waste of time, had binned it. The whole incident blew up in my face.

I use the above to illustrate the kinds of issues that are often of primary importance to an otherwise thriving six-year-old. The daily encounters, the wanting to experience new and exciting stuff and the social aspects of learning are so integral in day-to-day living and impact how we approach everything at the time. My thoughts were far away from tests, learning styles and practice in any academic form. I believe I was blessed with an inquisitive mind and a reasonable memory and parents, teachers and peers did not convey to me that they were overly concerned about trying to assess me! They inspired and encouraged me and I loved school. Yet if I had been asked to take some tests on one of those Wonderplast-gate days, I wonder what the outcome might have been?


Undoubtedly, teachers did assess me all the time. Every time I answered a question or came up with a new idea or was helpful to another girl, tying her shoelace for her or taking somebody to the duty teacher, because they were hurt. From time to time I did more formal tests: weekly spelling and times tables. It was important for me to learn how to learn! Then, from Year 3, we had end of year English and mathematics ‘exams’ and we took them seriously. The exams, we were told, were for the teachers to see what we had learned and then work out how to help us improve; not for league tables or for rating the education we were being given. 

Tests were also offered as challenges. I opted to take my ‘A-Level Times Tables Test’ in Year 4: 100 questions to do in the shortest time possible. I finished first, but I got one wrong: I thought that 2 x 2 x 2 was 6 and remember that very clearly: I learned from it and I got a badge for my efforts. I still like a challenge, but still when it is of my own choosing and not because somebody is trying to gauge how good or bad I am at something.

My issue with Key Stage 1 tests is not that children should never be tested, but in their formality and their purpose. In teaching, we are trained to focus on individual learners: to discover their ‘zone of proximal development’: in other words, ascertaining what each can already do unaided and then working out how to move them towards things that they cannot do yet. The Key Stage 1 assessments, in arithmetic and mathematical reasoning, in punctuation, spelling and grammar, are extremely formal for such young children to do. Instructions may be read out twice, but taking care not to over-emphasise particular words, lest we hint at the way to find the answer. So different to the classroom where teachers are continually hinting at what to so. Then, what of the child who finds auditory instructions so difficult, but for whom visual stimuli allow them to comprehend things really quickly? How are their needs met in these tests? A one-size-fits all test at this age is prohibitive. 

"Test results can stick and label our young, developing pupils. What about the child who was having an off day?" 

Inevitably, testing leads to practice; we do not wish children to face a task that is completely unfamiliar to them: ‘teaching to the test’ results. As an educator, it is important to prepare children for the high-stakes hurdles they will need to overcome to gain qualifications and university entry, but not at the age of six and seven. 

Test results can stick and label our young, developing pupils. What about the child who was having an off day? Whose pet has just died? Whose friend has just said a mean thing? I know that teacher assessment accompanies actual tests, so mismatches can be spotted, but scores are recorded and tracked. To what end?

There must be a pressure on schools for their pupils to perform, so that progress can be measured between baseline testing and the end of Year 2 but, in tracking what children can do, we also need to educate in a way that builds them up, that develops thinking, collaboration and excitement about learning. I question whether Key Stage 1 assessments achieve any of these. 

At Farlington, we use computer-based, adaptive testing to give us data that supports our other teacher assessments. If a child gets a question right, they are moved on to a harder one. But if wrong, the test proffers a simpler question. We find that these more diagnostic tests give us really useful feedback on the areas to boost and the strengths of the individual. 

In the classroom, when a child is unsure of what to do, they are encouraged to ask for help. This is the real world for which we are preparing young learners. I recently started an evening class. When arriving a little late this week, I saw that everybody had started and seemed to know what they were about, but I was all at sea, trying to look over shoulders and imitate. Of course, I also had the confidence and tenacity to ask the teacher over and over until I was clear about the task I needed to undertake and was soon on my way.

I am glad that the decision to remove Key Stage 1 testing has been taken, but why wait until 2023? 



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