Using testing is a delicate balancing act between arming teachers with valuable information on student progress and preventing schools from becoming ‘exam factories’ where test scores are all that matter, education officials say.
Some tests, like the CXC/GCSE exams taken at the end of secondary school, are clearly designed for assessment purposes.
And while every test, to a certain extent, is an assessment of a student’s abilities, the purpose in some instances is more subtle.
Frank Eade, a numeracy specialist who also works with the department of education services on refining teaching methods, said there was a key distinction between summative assessments – standardised tests to gauge student levels – and formative assessments – principally used to help teacher’s identify areas of weakness and plan future lessons.
Mr. Eade said formative assessments were often more useful to teachers.
English ‘PIRA’ tests and Maths ‘MALT’ tests are classic examples, he says, of this kind of testing. Teachers are provided with a report analysing the results that can ultimately change the way they teach.
“We look at the report and that can inform your approach and that can mean anything from how you teach one specific individual to the techniques you use across the whole school.
“When you ask good questions you get good information about how children are learning. You might find in a subject like maths that a lot of students are good at routines but when it comes to problem solving they are not doing well. You can change your approach to address that.”
The PISA and MALT tests are just two ‘recommended tests’ in an alphabet soup of examinations used across the Cayman Islands.
The mandated tests are:
DRA used to assess children’s reading levels and to support matching reading materials to children’s attainment
CAT3 used to assess students general potential and also subject specific potential
PIE used to provide a national curriculum sublevel in English and a diagnostic profile for individual students, classes and year groups both within and across schools
PIM used to provide a national curriculum sublevel in mathematics and a diagnostic profile for individual students, classes and year groups both within and across schools
KS 2 SATS exam sat in year 6. It provides a National Curriculum level of attainment in maths and English.
CXC, GCSE end of KS4 exams. These are used to as exit examinations and are used to staging posts for continuing education or work. These have international recognition.
Government publishes results for CXC/GCSEs and for the KS2 SATS exams. Other results have been released to the public through Freedom of Information requests in the past, but Mr. Eade argues this is not necessarily productive.
“There are good reasons for not publishing every test result. You don’t want to create a high stakes testing environment where teachers are simply teaching the test. We don’t want the schools to become exam factories.”
He said in some instances it was better for tests to be low-key and for teachers to have the freedom to use the information they provided to inform teaching methods without fearing they will be publicly judged.
The Department of Education’s guidelines to schools on using assessment data effectively expand on this theme.
The document states: “Although assessments do provide data for accountability purposes their main function needs to inform classroom actions and promote individual responsibilities. Countries that have transformed their educational systems give more emphasis to encouraging a positive and constructive use of data than as a tool to measure teacher performance.
“There is also substantial evidence to suggest that teachers and students gain most from assessments when they believe that they are providing valuable data. If assessments merely provide a level of attainment then teachers and students often put little effort into understanding the reasons behind this.
“In contrast assessments which have searching questions with diagnostic purpose are far more likely to stimulate interest in students and provide highly informative information for teachers. Encouraging teachers to see almost all classroom activities as potential formative assessment opportunities is a vital feature of highly effective teaching. This can help to create a learning environment where students become far more aware of their own learning.”