I’m no stranger to tests. I spend most of my working day preparing students for exams or controlled assessments. That’s my job, among many, many other things – to make sure students have the best possible preparation for the exams they will sit at the end of their time with us. I’ve taught tens, hundreds, thousands, of students how to pass exams, and how to pass them well. And these exams have an important place in our school system; without them, we wouldn’t be preparing children for life. So no, I’m not anti exams. But I am finding myself feeling quite violently opposed to the tests my child will sit at the end of the year.
Before you ask, it’s not because he’s my son. I’m perfectly happy for him to sit exams at age sixteen; in fact if you pushed me I’d say I’m even fine with him sitting them at age ten, when he will finish primary school. (Well – it’s all relative. I’m more fine with it as a concept in four years’ time than I am right now) They all have to sit them at some point. It’s because he’s six. Six. And he’ll still be six when he sits these tests. The school assure me that he won’t know he’s sitting them or their importance – but that they will sit them by themselves at individual desks. I have this image of him sitting, by himself, at a little desk, pencil in hand, staring blankly at a piece of paper in despair. Or – what is more likely for him – not understanding how important these tests are, and deciding he’ll just get these over with quickly, and he’ll do them tomorrow better, not realising there won’t be a tomorrow for those tests. There will just be a score, and some data that will follow him around until the next set of tests. Some data that will mean judgements are formed, expectations are set, and assumptions are made.
The trouble with tests is that they don’t tell a story. They give you a set of answers in isolation, on one day, in one hour. They don’t tell you that he can build any set of Lego. They don’t tell you that, verbally, he can dissect all the parts of a sentence and then reel off a sentence of his own, containing a noun, a verb, an adjective and an adverb, and then he can tell you what each does in the sentence. They don’t tell you that he reads books for ten year olds. They don’t tell you that I couldn’t get him out of Waterstones when I bought him ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ because he sat on the floor and started to read it right then. They don’t tell you that his face lights up every time he walks into a bookshop. They don’t tell you that he can sit by himself for hours with his Lego, creating whole wonderful worlds. Most of all, they don’t tell you that he finds writing so, so hard because of a diagnosed issue with his fine motor control, and because of that he may never be able to produce the answers in the time required in these tests to show who he really is. No, what they tell you is what a six year old, with no understanding of what these tests are or why he’s doing them, can do in an hour.
And what they mostly don’t tell you is what these tests are actually for. That they’re a way of assessing the school, not the student. That they’re a way for Ofsted to ‘measure progress’; so that his school can set some expectations as to how much progress he will make from that point at the end of Year 2. And they’re a way to monitor teachers, to track what they’re doing, to check they’re doing their job the way the government have decided it needs to be done.
I’m not anti data as a teacher, not at all. I love data. I work with it every day. But what I love about data most is that each individual number represents a child – someone whose parents love them as I love mine, someone who laughs, plays, finds minions hilarious, doesnt like broccoli but does like peas, reads, can sing like an angel, is amazing at drama, is kind, or thoughtful, or funny, can spends hours painting, someone who is some other parent’s everything. Data can be a very valuable tool – when used correctly – beause we have to measure progress. We have to know that students are coming to school every day and learning something and that they’re on a path to further progression.
So data has a place, yes. Of course it does. But it doesn’t have a place at age six, when all it tells you is how fast a child could read and write and do maths in the space of an hour. In the middle of all these tests and assessing and checking how good they are at spelling and punctuation are real children, who in other countries would not yet have started even to read. Real, individual children, with endless talents and thoughts and ideas and issues all of their own. And these tests, too much, too young, are, in the end, telling so very little of their stories.