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Why I believe in high stakes testing… in the right context

Teachers are exceptionally good at creating strong relationships with classes of children and young adults. As knowledgeable, fascinating figures who beam out a sense of ‘I know you can do it’, they are able to use their positive relationships to challenge students to push through difficult and troublesome learning, achieving more than they thought was possible and exploring skills and understanding that they’d have never had access to before.

Learning isn’t always a comfortable process, and wise teachers know that they need to fine-tune the level of difficulty to hover around the edge of students’ comfort zones. Occasionally they need to consolidate and build confidence, sometimes they need to push and take a leap. Sometimes they will pursue a student’s own fascination with a topic and help them achieve amazing things. In other cases they will carefully and lovingly push them in an uncomfortable direction, nurturing a resilience and drive for future life to take on tough challenges with gusto, while enabling students to experience and learn things they’d have never got access to on their own accord.

Learning that isn’t challenging can become dull and uninteresting. As a species, humans love puzzles, challenges and a bit of challenge. We revel in having the hard task of ‘climbing the mountain’ rewarded when we have an opportunity to look at how high we’ve climbed and admire the view. We feel pride and joy as we grow and develop.

There are many ways to create this challenge, of course, so what role do tests play? A solid body research tells us, perhaps surprisingly, that an entirely low-stakes test can be enormously beneficial to the learning process itself. The latest science about how learning occurs in the brain demonstrates that the challenge of remembering and recalling knowledge builds long term memory.

However, not all tests are low stakes. Some test, like public examinations and national assessments may be a little more daunting. Done well, schools can engender a feeling of excitement and challenge in students. Here is a bar for you to leap over, a way to demonstrate how far you’ve climbed, an opportunity to feel proud and gain a recognition of your progress that no-one can ever take away. Done badly, these can make students feel demotivated and scared, leading to a lifetime of bad memories.

Professor Marc Jones studies the different ways that a challenge can affect us physiologically, in different organisations and teams. He notes that stressful situations can be both good for us or bad for us, depending on context.

“The belief in our ability to perform well is clearly a crucial element in being able to perform under pressure. A high level of confidence is important for a challenge state. Second is a feeling of control. Believing you have control over factors that may affect performance and how you perform under pressure is important for a challenge state. Going into pressure situations focusing on factors that cannot be controlled, such as a footballer worrying about match officials, is associated with a threat state. Finally, being focused on what can be achieved – an approach focus is important. Individuals who are challenged are focused on what can be achieved while those that are threatened are focused on what might go wrong.”

So, we can help students associate future challenge with excitement, rather than terror, by carefully building them up for well-calibrated, high-stakes tests such that they feel confident, in-control and focused on the positive. We can support this through a shared ethos of positivity, of belonging and support. It’s the thrill of the high-jump, the heart-pounding excitement of not quite knowing if you’ll make it, followed by the pay-off of practice and dedication – the glow of success.

There is, of course, a constant and very human temptation to avoid challenging students. After all, even if 9 out of 10 students benefit, we may leave 1 out of 10 with a sense of failure. Given how highly attuned we are to their feelings, this can lead to very well-meaning temptation to reduce challenge and ensure that students never feel any stress. The unhappy corollary is that lower challenge can often mean less learning and fewer opportunities for pride and success. hard work with occasional stress followed by success is so much better for young people than a lifetime of well-meaning low bars and low expectations.

The balance to be struck is to keep the challenge high enough that there is some risk, or else the challenge becomes too low. However, we also need to quickly pick students up after a fall, dust them off and engineer another challenge where they can succeed, learn to be resilient, and get their pride back. It’s something that we naturally do with children as they learn to ride their bikes, and teachers are immensely skilled at doing this in the classroom.

Another startling finding is that tests can actually help the most vulnerable students to succeed. Studies have shown that humans are not very good at making objective judgements and will often by fooled by stereotypes. Entirely inadvertently teachers (like all human beings) have often been found to make more negative judgements compared to test scores, for example, with girls in maths, boys in English, and children from disadvantaged backgrounds in all subjects. This is not due to any ill intent, it is merely a limitation of the way our brains work. When we acknowledge and recognise this natural limitation, a well-designed test can help the profession and the school system to overcome these entirely human and inevitable biases and even out entrenched inequality. And that, of course, is what we want for all young people.

Great tests can also be part of the suite of powerful tools to help teachers to learn more about students’ needs. Where teachers use formative assessment in their own professional development, we know that it helps them grow and improve more effectively and ensure they can help future generations achieve even more. A mix of professional judgement and skilfully designed tests helps us grow and become ever better at supporting young people’s learning. Not only that, both low, medium and high-stakes assessments can give us rich and powerful insights into our learners thinking, with pointers to how we can plan future lessons and tasks to help them most effectively and personally.

In so many classrooms, students will do so much for the teachers they respect – they want to please them, feel proud, and do well. However, we live in in a world of high-stakes inspections, performance related pay, performance management and league tables. If teachers are made to feel not only stressed and anxious about students achieving, but if they also lack confidence and support, then this will inevitably be picked up by the students as well. This could, of course, negate many positives from high challenge tests. Not only that , badly designed tests in a low-trust culture leads to a toxic environment, gaming and teacher burn-out. It leads to superficial teaching to try and desperately ‘drill’ the learning into students heads, no matter how short term, out of survival desperation. This is the very antithesis of what we aspire for our students – I do understand why there is so much anger around and why it’s so tempting to aim this fury at tests themselves.

For high stake assessment to work, therefore, we not only need to focus on the conditions for students but also to focus on the conditions for the teachers.

We need every teacher to feel confident, in control, well supported and focused on the positive. This requires accountability systems that are paired with support and warmth, where success is shared and the right level challenge remains positive and keeps us excitingly hovering around the edge of our own comfort zones. It requires school leaders who have positive, trusted relationships with teachers and, by extension, who have similar relationships with those who hold them to account as well. It requires a faith that, if a high bar is not jumped, there will be support and encouragement from peers and leaders to pick schools and teachers back up and help them try again. Everyone deserves more than one shot, especially when an increasing number of teachers and heads are considering whether they even want to stay in this great profession.

Testing is no panacea, and tests are too often accompanied by crude carrots and painful sticks in a low trust, punitive approach that tries to get performance through fear. It is right to reject such a system that causes bad stress and propagates too much fear and provides too little support. However, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Great testing is one of the most powerful implements in a teacher’s toolbox. Let’s fix the system, provide the right support, and use this tool to provide powerful learning, memorable success and a deep well of pride for every student that provides a solid foundation for a happy, fulfilled and successful life.

Article image from Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ATC_Admission_Exam.JPG