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The Pressure to Balance High Stakes Testing Against Individualised Education

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The pressure to balance high stakes testing against individualised education is mounting. I recently read a blog outlining the strengths of high stakes testing. To be fair the blogger addressed issues of why they believed high stakes testing is here to stay and to a point I agree.

Systems and governments will always need accountability measures to be able to justify expenditure and policy decisions. Governments and systems know that they cannot show improvement if they do not have a performance measure. Monitoring and reviewing academic outcomes allows the identification of best practices and areas for development. It also provides data that schools can be held accountable for. I don’t think that any educator has an issue with the theory behind the premise. However high stakes testing has gained such momentum that it is creating pressure cooker environments that run the risk of undermining the accuracy and validity of the data being collected.

High stakes testing is designed to improve student learning, however they are generally held so infrequently that they provide little ongoing advice to support individual student learning needs. I believe that this lack of timely feedback reduces the impact and intended purpose of high stakes testing. Whilst results gained provide data that may indicate particular trends over time, the most significant improvements are found at individual item analysis where improvement has been driven by teaching and learning programs that focus on test specific questioning. This in my opinion raises the question of teaching to the test, a practice that educators know happens. I believe that this practice has the potential to narrow the curriculum focus at the expense of other subject areas. When schools and systems are driven by high stakes testing results, the data analysis and pressure to succeed can consume a schools timetable. Systems are littered with stories of weekly testing regimes that aim to prepare students for an upcoming examination period. This is usually done at the expense of subjects in the arts and humanities. I am sure that many schools have tried to predict an upcoming writing examination and have worked towards preparing students at the expense of writing for a broad range of purposes. It’s just basic mathematics, if we are spending more time focusing on test preparation then something has to go. What I believe this demonstrates is that the pressure of such tests can erode their validity and integrity, as educators continue to refine systems and routines that focus on improving test scores. The ability to rehearse and learn testing skills has spawned big business. Many publishing companies have entered this market developing textbooks, programs and professional learning aimed at increasing a student’s ability to succeed at standardised tests. I am sure educators would agree that high stakes testing will never define nor encompass a well-rounded broad education.

The challenge I see for education systems is to ensure that the pressure from high stakes testing does not drive us away from our curriculum. In NSW Public Education we certainly have high states testing but we are also using learning continuums to plot student achievement and identify the next level of skills and knowledge needed. These continuums target aspects that have been identified as critical to ongoing literacy and numeracy achievement. They allow teachers to make ongoing judgements about student achievement in literacy and numeracy based on a range of assessment information. This helps us navigate a clearer learning path rather than a point in time destination. Tracking student achievement every 5 weeks helps teachers identify students who are risk of not meeting pre-determined benchmarks. Identifying these students allows for the design of targeted interventions at very specific levels. System based high stakes testing provides feedback, but months after the event. Using our learning continuums and PLAN data students are tracked on a system designed database that enables the extraction of results for real time reporting to our system and government, thus serving the accountability purpose of high stake testing without the cost or the pressure. Every term this data can be analysed for areas of strength and areas for improvement at a school and system level. This enables both individual school and system level resource flexibility and responsiveness.

Improving student achievement requires targeted professional learning based on evidence. We must use this evidence to build teacher capacity and focus teaching efforts to identify and specifically design individualised instruction. This move in NSW Public Education, particularly supported by the Early Action for Success initiative, has increased teacher confidence informing learning intentions and using specific language for instruction. Every teaching moment is intentional with teachers becoming more confident in prioritising time to specifically target what matters for the individual student. Having benchmarks that identify where students should be on the continuum helps gives teachers a goal to work towards. This method of tracking learning provides very immediate feedback and feed forward for both teachers and students. In short it is a tight and systematic method of tracking student achievement.  When we have access to immediate data we can make a shift tomorrow not next month. The continuum allows us to maintain high expectations but provides an explicit scaffold for how to get there.

John Mundorf reminds us that we need to give students different ways of accessing content, and expressing what they have learned.

John Mundorf reminds us that we need to give students different ways of accessing content, and expressing what they have learned.

Students in NSW Public Education are now more than ever before clearer about their responsibility in their own learning; they know where they are and where they need to go. They are now developing sound skills in monitoring their own progress. This goal oriented and self-regulated learning is building students’ awareness of the learning process, a lifelong skill that will enable them to make informed decisions about their learning journey. On my recent trip to Harvard Graduate School of Education lecturer Jon Mundorf said the following “formative assessment never closes.” He went on to explain that point in time testing is like a store with opening hours, it operates during a specified timeframe. In NSW Public Education our learning continuums are always open, they are like the 24/7 convenience store always there, always open and ready for business. I am certainly not advocating for a choose your own adventure style of teaching, this is targeted, it’s intentional and it’s driven by curriculum achievement. Will high stakes testing ever disappear? Does it have a place? I guess these questions will continue to be asked, studied, researched and debated. What I do know however is that while it is here the pressure to balance it against individualised education will continue.

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