Reflections on standardised testing

As a teacher and action researcher, I try to live my life in the direction of the values I hold. Jack Whitehead, and others, have written extensively about this idea. I value making meaningful connections and connectedness in education (see https://www.eari.ie/2013/10/08/making-the-connection/). I also believe in the importance of valuing each student as someone with huge potential and possibility, regardless of the their perceived learning difficulties.  

In a world that is increasingly putting pressure on primary schools to ‘perform’; to reach targets and to attain higher scores in literacy and numeracy (see Literacy and Numeracy for Learning and Life: The National Strategy to Improve Literacy and Numeracy among Children and Young People 2011- 2020), I am finding that it is becoming very difficult to give my students the opportunity to learn at their own pace and according to their own learning strengths. Students are somehow no longer allowed to just ‘be’. They are no longer allowed to progress at their own pace. Nor is there time for them to enjoy the work they do or to just sit and wonder.

Instead, children, especially those who need extra support with their learning, are now placed on a production line of non-stop interventions that will ‘deliver’ higher STEN scores (by five percentage points according to the 2011 Strategy document). Their teachers have been instructed that more teaching and learning time must be channeled towards the twin edu-gods of literacy and numeracy and less time must be spent on other subjects (p.59). Promoting creativity (especially drama) seems to be frowned upon and, as for students having a moment to day-dream…I suspect that that might now nearly be a sackable offence!

I wonder why have we become so non-sensical. Why have we allowed statistics and scores to become the sole guiding lights that inform how we teach and learn?

Somehow, we have lost sight of the student as a real live person in the rush towards higher test scores and beating the bell curve. We have lost our focus on the young human beings in our classrooms as, in the dim light of our current system of education, they seem to be slowly losing their human attributes and morphing into soul-less statistics before our unseeing eyes and ambitious minds. We say things like ‘Sean is an eight’ with the sub-text ‘Sean is a successful student’. We say ‘Sarah is a three’, meaning she needs many interventions and much extra work in the area of numeracy or literacy.

Maybe the time had come for us to just stop…even for a moment.
Maybe we should take a pause and think about what we are trying to do as educators and parents…
Maybe we should breathe quietly and be inspired…

Let me bring to mind my student, whose angelic humming as she unpacks her bag in the morning, brings serenity to all who can hear her. She has a STEN score of 3 but when it comes to having a lovely singing voice, and the ability to spread warmth and good-will to all in her presence, her skills are immeasurable. Why do I even need to mention that her STEN is 3? Is it not enough that her warmth and her beautiful humming can bathe a whole classroom in delight? Is it not enough that everyone is working to the best of their ability to help her with her maths or reading difficulties…and just leave it at that? Why is she a ‘3’ instead of a fabulous human being?

So why should we be sucked into this measuring frenzy?

As I think about this student, and other besides, I ask that I might be inspired to do my utmost for them as amazing young people, that I may encourage them to develop all their skills and strengths: in singing as well as literacy, in spreading joy as well as maths, in having a sense of humour and as well as problem solving and in all the other skills and attributes that make up being human.
I ask that I may always see the human-ness of my students and not be blinded by demands for higher scores.
I ask that I might try to enable them to attain their potential in every aspect…and then maybe, a little bit more.

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