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Column Do we really need mandatory standardised testing in primary schools?

Learning support teachers are more than capable of screening and diagnosing learning difficulties, writes Peter Gunning.

IT IS THAT time of year again when our broad primary curriculum surrenders its holistic hallmark and yields to a narrow focus zeroing in on numeracy and literacy.

Multi-talented teachers, who normally engage their multi-talented children in imaginative and experiential teaching and learning suddenly morph into standardised testers, pinning notices onto their classroom doors requesting silence please as tests are in progress before informing the children that they have one hour and that they may begin.

Standardised tests

Standardised tests have been used in primary schools for over twenty years. In the school where I was principal until my recent retirement, we used them as a means of screening children to ascertain which of them might benefit from additional learning supports.

Prior to 2012, such screening was informal and discretionary. Since 2012 yearly standardised testing in numeracy and literacy has become mandatory for all primary school pupils from First to Sixth Class.

Principals are obliged to tabulate and forward results of these tests to the Department of Education and Skills each June. It is also mandatory to publish the children’s scores on the their yearly report cards.

This can result in definition by test performance which is alien to the multiple intelligence culture which exists in our primary schools where each child’s holistic development is central.

Their usefulness can be inflated

These Drumcondra Maths and English tests or the equivalent MICRA-Ts and SIGMA-Ts can be useful screening tools of a child’s progress in the key areas of literacy and numeracy.

However, the danger is that their usefulness can be inflated, and detract from the real and varied learning experiences enjoyed by children in our schools. Teachers and parents have a responsibility to ensure that the correct perspective is maintained.

The tests provide so-called “hard data”, STENs  (basically an out of ten score) and percentiles (indicating at which percentage point the child is at on a national grid). No less but certainly no more.

An upset father

Last summer, I had a visit from a father who was very upset about his child’s STEN score in her SIGMA-T maths test. He produced a line graph which he had drawn showing his daughter’s performance over the previous four years.

Eimear had an above average STEN:8 (basically 8/10) each year but scored a STEN:7 in 2017. The father wanted to know what we were going to do about this set-back. Before I glanced out of the window to check whether the sky had fallen in, I asked him had he ever heard his daughter sing.

Teachers too can fall into the trap of thinking that which can be counted matters more than that which actually counts. Noticing the abstract for this article on my study table, Cathal, my now adult son reminded me of his experience of what he calls STIGMA testing in fourth class.

Misuse of hard data

His class teacher administered tests at both the beginning and at the end of the school year ranking the children in order of performance. He asked Cathal to explain how he had fallen from seventh in the class in September to seventeenth in June. This teacher in his misuse of hard data is in good company.

The Irish Times annually aggregates third-level entries to produce a top-down league table of post-primary schools. Using that which can be counted and overlooking so much that really counts the tables come under the erroneous title “Top Schools”.

Tackling social disadvantage, welcoming students with learning disabilities and opening special classes for children on the ASD spectrum may be more difficult criteria to measure but each add to the betterment of our schools.

Why the need?

Mandatory standardised testing at primary level is at the very least questionable. Why the need? Learning support teachers are more than capable of screening and diagnosing learning difficulties where and when the need arises without turning the whole school into an examination hub once a year.

Teachers need to keep their focus on ensuring that in their classrooms the teaching and learning is active and creative. There should be no distracting from this focus on child-centred education. Because, from that centre the creative outcomes are immeasurable.

Fortunately, the primary school curriculum lends itself to unearthing such outcomes. Provoke the imagination and a child’s inherent talents and infinite potential will emerge.

On visiting sixth class last June I asked the children how many of them were poets. No hand went up. I demonstrated a simple four line rhythm and rhyme technique. Within half an hour they were all producing four liners. The following day there was a sign on the doors of both sixth classes. “Please Do Not Disturb. Poets At Work.”

A number of years ago I attended a lunch after a confirmation ceremony. I was asked by a bishop, as a teacher had I ever encountered “real genius”. I told him that I met with genius on a daily basis. The bishop looked somewhat bemused. He had a rather more academic interpretation of the word “genius” than me.

But when it comes to defining a genius I agree with Einstein: “Everyone is a genius but if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree it will spend its whole life thinking it is stupid.”

Peter Gunning is a retired primary school principal and writer.

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