Teaching to the Test

It’s that time of year again when primary schools nationwide will focus their energies on the administration of standardised testing. As has been the case since 2012, parents have a right to be informed of the outcome of these tests for their children in 2nd, 4th and 6th Classes. Many schools will report these results from 1st up to 6th as a matter of their own policy.

These tests are largely diagnostic tests. They will help to show teachers the areas where children have strengths in and equally, in areas where this is not the case. If a child needs additional attention, these tests will play a part in the allocation of that additional attention.

Staying with the topic of diagnostics, if I feel unwell and I decide to go to my GP, I won’t hide my symptoms. I won’t act healthier than I feel. I won’t hold back when asked to describe my symptoms. I will present myself as I am to my doctor and he will make a diagnosis based on this information. He will prescribe a course of action that will be designed to improve my health.

Let’s apply this same logic to standardised testing. Ideally, if a teacher administers a standardised English Reading or Mathematics test to their class, they’d do it because they’d like to see roughly what level their pupils are at. If there are any areas of concern, they’ll have a good idea of what they are and how to address them. This is what standardised testing is supposed to be about. If, on the other hand, a teacher decides to ‘prepare’ their students for this type of testing by either drilling the pupils with questions of a similar format, or worse, by teaching the exact material of the test beforehand, these teachers are doing no favours to their pupils, to their pupils’ parents and to their own colleagues.

I can only assume that it is a small minority of teachers who teach to the test. Some might claim that they just want the pupils to get the highest mark possible, but this is not the point of these tests at all and it is high time that this is understood properly across the profession. This approach robs pupils of precious Learning Support attention that they may otherwise have been entitled to had the test been administered properly. It will give a false indication of the pupil’s true ability and the child could end up slipping through the cracks.

Another ‘defence’ of teaching to the test is ignorance. Some will claim that they didn’t know that their approach would invalidate the results, but this is simply not good enough. It doesn’t take long to read the testing manual where it is very clearly stated what the purpose of the test is and how not to approach it.

Some might claim that School Self-Evaluation (SSE) pressures them into doing everything they can to improve scores. Well, I believe in doing everything you can for your pupils in order to help them reach their true potential. Teaching to the test does not accomplish this and never will.

There are some who will state that standardised testing is just a snapshot, that it receives far too much attention for what it is – and they’d be right. It is, after all, only a glimpse of what one child did during one hour on a day in May. What’s more important and valuable than standardised testing is what the teacher has to say about their pupils, having taught, observed and interacted with them all year. This is what’s really important. That said, while standardised testing still plays a part in school life, it is important that all teachers, as highly-qualified professionals, approach it professionally. Otherwise, the minority will do the majority a disservice.

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