Friday, May 16, 2008

NOT teaching to the test

It's exam time here in the UK, and of course, a lot of airtime is being given to this or that expert and this or that kid with an exciting viewpoint to present. The latest two I heard today were (1) that an expert has pointed at the currect system of assessment cannot be truly even handed, since each marker will interpret an answer slightly differently, and that (and this is the kicker) this meant that the assessment system was not a completely reliable picture of a child's abilities in a subject (gee wow!) and (2) that a kid is complaining that their high school education is so focussed on the final assessment that they're not actually getting a worhtwhile education.

We have been thoroughly embroiled in exams with our elder son taking his GCSEs and our younger one doing his key stage 3 SATs.

Interestingly, I have discovered (just today) that my elder son's music teacher has not been one of those that the aforementioned kid was complaining about. The music class has spent the most wonderful year doing all sorts of practical things, and learning blow-all theory.

A couple of weeks ago, as is the wont of teachers at this stage of the final year, the teacher set the kids the task of completing a previous year's GCSE paper. My son apparently scored the highest mark in the class... a magnificent 45/120. Looking at the paper afterwards, the teacher's reaction was, "Hm. I haven't taught you any of this stuff."

So it seems he ignored the curriculum and did his own thing with the kids. Hence the enjoyment of the class. However, if any of the kids want to continue with music into the 6th form, they don't stand a chance of being accepted to do so, because they won't have achieved suitable results.

So where does this leave us?

You teach to the test and the kids learn little they can apply or you don't teach to the test and the kids don't get to carry the subject over to further education.

Surely there must be another way?

Sadly, I suspect it means completely overhauling the education system, not just tweaking the existing one. It means throwing away everything we think we know about assessment and starting again from scratch. Which means, as far as I'm concerned starting with the premise: what do we want to be able to say of a properly educated 18 year old, how do we get them there, and how do we tell when whether we've succeeded or not?

I'm not going to hold my breath!

As it happens, my son has no desire to take music for his A levels. He has chosen Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Maths (talk about putting all your eggs into one basket!). The tradition is to take 4 subjects for the first year (AS levels) and then drop one, so you finish with 3 A levels. He wants to keep all four going.

I hope he's going to get better support than the "teaching to the test" approach. Much as I deplore the system, I also hope he's going to receive teaching that will enable to him to face the exams feeling that he's on familiar ground. If he's to succeed in his goal of getting into Bristol University to study forensics, he's going to need to play the system.



Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia Ora Karyn.

Sigh you might. It's one of the paradoxes of being a teacher following an exam prescription. We teach to standards in senior secondary in NZ. There's no real difference though.

As a teacher I have to ensure that all my criterion tick-boxes are ticked. Strangely enough in that system, so have the students when they answer a test. Creativity? Forget it.

Ka kite

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the perspective, Ken. My cousin is a biology teacher in Auckland, but we're not really in regular contact, so I don't hear this side of things from him.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

@Karyn - I teach Science, Chemistry and now Physics (again). I suspect that Biology would not be much different from these in the way the assessment criteria operate.
Ka kite

Anonymous said...

Maybe your teacher knew something the rest didn't:

Anonymous said...

@neil Oh wow! As if the poor kid didn't have enough exams to deal with. Because he only had one paper during the earlier tranch, he now faces a veritable barrage. An average of four a week for 4 weeks. There is even one day on which he has 3 exams to complete!

And in the middle of this, one teacher decided to set a piece of homework... and then write a letter of complaint to me when he didn't do it. Poor thing, I don't think she was expecting the answer she got ;o)

Anonymous said...

I fear for my Year 11 History students, to be honest. I've tried to balance exam practice and knowledge with interesting stuff and learning skills.

Given how much other subjects in my school and further afield spend going through exam papers and consolidating 'technique', I'm slightly concerned I haven't done enough.

We'll see come August - at least my job next year doesn't depend on their results! :-o