Who's the most tested one of all?

by Tim Oates, 16 May 2016
Let's get some facts straight, since the current debate about curriculum and assessment is peppered with misleading statements. 

"People say that we are the most assessed school system in the world. This simply is not true." 

People say that we are the most assessed school system in the world. This simply is not true. We have talked to many teachers about why this so frequently is said. The sense of ‘most assessed’ derives not from the amount of formal testing, but its ‘high stakes’ nature. Being used for accountability, it weighs heavily on schools. In fact, high performing systems such as Hong Kong and Singapore have far more testing in primary schools, in every year. In the USA, tests are more frequent and are equally dominating of teachers’ focus and concerns. 

We also do research work with children, and they often fail to distinguish between a formal, required national test, and a timed, ‘quiet’ test devised by the school. To them, it’s all testing. So we need to take all forms of testing into account when we make this ‘most tested’ claim. 

Finland, that country which is seen as relaxed, high performing and respectful of teachers, has many more timed, ‘quiet’ tests in primary schooling than we do. Frequently these come from well-designed learning materials and, interestingly, from teachers' associations. The Finnish State has a history of testing too: tests from the centre, not to all children but to a sample, for the state to make judgements about the quality of schooling in the country. Overall, a high density of formal tests. 

"Finland, seen as relaxed and high performing, has many more tests than we do." 

In Singapore and Hong Kong, it is true that their children both perform very well - far above ours in maths - and display high levels of stress about the tests they take. Governments in both of these jurisdictions are concerned about the stress levels which high stakes testing have induced and are taking actions to reduce such stress – though not necessarily through reduction in the amount of testing. By contrast, in Finland - where testing also is far more frequent than in typical primary schools in England - pupils aren't stressed by the high levels of testing. 

That clears the ground about the amount of testing. Our system, by a long chalk, is not the most tested system in the world. 

Children’s stress has been mentioned throughout the recent debate in England. In Singapore, the Primary School Leaving Examination, taken at the end of primary school, determines which of the four routes young children go into - some seen as high status and others less so - it really matters. Teachers, parents and children get intensely stressed about the results, something about which the government there is very concerned. Here, we need to recognise that the KS2 tests matter a great deal to schools, but don't have the same "Teachers, parents and children get intensely stressed about the results." 

educational consequences for children. In Singapore, the tests really matter to children's futures; in England they really matter to each school's future. The pressure on schools to perform well has, in some settings, stimulated transfer of that stress - conveyed from the school to the pupils. This points an accusatory finger not to the primary tests themselves, but to the way in which we use the outcomes and the way in which we handle the tests in schools. The new policy of some children resitting SATs in secondary school does increase the consequences for individuals, but the stakes remain highest for schools, not individual children. 

In Finland, with its high level of testing, everyone works hard not to convey or create test anxiety among children. 

As for England, should we have tests in primary? Absolutely. Fair and accurate assessment is a vital part of any high quality system. Wrapped seamlessly into normal learning processes, regular tests need not invoke anxiety. Tests are extremely helpful to teachers wanting to know whether a child has any reading difficulties on entry to school. Parents need to know whether their local school is improving or not. Children need feedback on what they have done well and the things on which they need to focus and practice. 

Inaccurate, "Should we have tests in primary? Absolutely." 

undependable assessment is extremely unhelpful to all of these sensible and common interests. We need to get to a system where everyone has an interest in fair and accurate assessment. External tests – whether pencil and paper or on-line - have a big role to play in a balanced assessment system - they are a valuable dependable reference point for everyone. Teacher assessment can play a role, but needs anchor points. External tests can reduce teacher and school workload. They should not be a focus of undue stress, but a helpful guide to expected standards and to the standards attained by children. 

By looking at other nations, we can hold a mirror up to our own, and understand better the system we have. 

Tim Oates 
Group Director, Assessment Research and Development, Cambridge Assessment

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