Tests and me

I went to check the Science SAT tests at a school in the town where I work. I had my pieces of paper to check the security of the tests. Were the ones that had been taken this week in a secure place? Were enough tests ordered? Have the tests that are to be sent away for external marking been sent away properly? Was there a collection note?

Then I went into a large classroom where about thirty Year 6 (Grade 5) children sat  at desks arranged so that they were a distance from each other and that they could not possibly see each other’s work. The teacher explained the rules…”make sure you write your name carefully and put the name of the school. This test is a bit different from the other tests we have taken this week… you must make sure that you DON’T write in the grey margin or over the barcode at the bottom”.

I loved it when one of the children put his hand up when the teacher asked if there were any questions. “Yes?” she said… “Why can’t we write in the margins?” he asked. “It’s just the way that it is,” she said, “and don’t write over the barcode!”

Then there were a few children (the ones who needed to be read to… the “Special Needs” kids) who were taken out of the room by Teaching Assistants so that they could be read to.

I didn’t stay long after that. I just looked at the faces of the children, tense and unsmiling.. awaiting yet another test in a week of tests. It brought back so many memories to me. Of the tests and exams that I did at school. Of the feeling the night before that I wouldn’t remember a thing… that I would write rubbish… that I would let myself down and disappoint my parents.

I failed quite a lot of tests and exams in my schooling. I could never accommodate myself to the idea of sitting in a tense environment and answering questions. I did write rubbish on quite a few occasions and the results were very disappointing.

My greatest achievement was achieving a Grade A at British Constitution (Politics) Advanced Level. I went to a night school in Islington (London) to study for this and went just once a week in a cold and forbidding old Victorian school that was very soon afterwards pulled down!

I learnt very little from trying to keep awake at the droning that constituted the lessons by the ancient teacher that “taught” us the subject. I read the books that he had told me to read and I suppose I had an instinctive feel for the subject.

When it was time to go in for the exam I wrote what I thought I needed to write… what I wanted to say… not what I had been told I had to write for some examiner who I would never see…. it paid off and I produced the greatest result of my life (indeed the only one of any note!)

Someone said to me once that a test or an exam shows that you are good at tests or exams… it does not really reflect your true ability… it answers artificial questions in an artificial way.

I have never really been good at tests and yet I have done quite well in the educational system… but as I tell everyone it has never been easy and my success in achieving a degree and a postgraduate degree has been despite the testing and exam system not because of it.

I started my week by going to check the SAT papers in a school that I used to teach in. I was told by the head and the deputy head that they had decided to obey their union and not have the SAT Tests this week. I told them their legal responsibilities and then I said… “I bet your Year 6 children slept better last night because they weren’t coming into SAT’s this morning”.

“They are getting on with their education,” they told me, “we know our children and we know what level they have got to in the National Curriculum”.

“Often,” they said, “we see a child who we know is at a certain level and they do so badly in the tests.. every now and again we get someone who surprises you and does really well”

“I know,” I said, “Most times I was  the child who did badly!”

As I left the school doing the Science SATs this morning I was so pleased to get away from the tension and the bad memories. Later that afternoon a colleague asked me if I would have joined the SATs boycott that many teachers and headteachers have joined this week. I said that I most certainly would have… for sound educational reasons and very personal ones.

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3 Responses

  1. Truer words were never spoken. It is because of tests that I considered myself stupid and did not pursue college until I was 48! So many of my students (I currently teach English as a Second Language) and those of my colleagues check out after weeks of testing without learning. Hard to believe, but an entire month is devoted to testing. And, to what end; so that the state can determine if the children are learning and warrant more money? Where is the emphasis on educating? Can you imagine any business which shuts down all productivity for a month so that its workers can be tested on that which the government deems important? Also, having read so many of these exams to my students, do the English speaking 5th and 6th graders know what it means when a sentence says that something adheres to another; and expect the student to pull out the main idea/inference/ or other? Even I had to reread some of the portions in order to understand what the test was asking. Are we testing or tricking our students? My students need more time with learning, both academically and socially. Where is the time and money for that????

    • Thanks for your comment Sharon. I note that you did not persue college until you were 48….the great thing is that you have discovered what tests never show.. that there is a highly intelligent, perceptive person who has much to give to the world and her students. Tests do not create anything positive and at their worst they put students under intolerable pressure that can even lead to suicide! We must understand that,as a society we are doing ourselves down by these tests and in the end we are missing out on the talent of so many really good people who have so much within them that they can contribute to others…. thank goodness you overcame the stupidity of it all and proved to the world that you truly have a contribution to make and I’m sure a very significant one in the future.

  2. I remember I got stuck on a problem in my Advanced Math ‘O’ level. It was about a pendulum. It was very interesting it and I spent the rest of the precious allotted time thinking about it. I’m sure this cost me a grade. However curiosity is what drives scientists and others to create genuinely new knowledge outside the parochial world of schools. So I don’t feel ashamed…

    If I may be permitted to offer an opinion: testing simply doesn’t work!

    It cannot measure *depth* of knowledge, even in principle, because depth depends on the connections we form between what we are learning and other stuff we already know. The ‘other stuff’ is unique to each student — therefore there’s no fair way to measure it across of a number of people.

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