Regular, low-stakes testing is a great thing. It quickly informs planning, how much homework students have undertaken, possible issues with the delivery, discussions with parents: all sorts. It also, I am convinced, helps to increase retention through the students’ process of trying to get 100%. I keep a running tally to both measure a student’s progress (or lack of) over time as well as class averages and topic averages which I then use to inform how and what I deliver, the pace of that delivery and, of course, misconceptions. Low-stakes testing also very quickly allows the teacher to decide whether it’s appropriate to really delve into a topic or not.
So why the misgivings?
Partly it’s the word ‘testing’. Testing sounds like something a static-haired scientist carries out on a poor victim in order to create his own B&Q monster. Testing is what transnational corporations do in remote locations to indigenous tribespeople so we can have sweeter smelling perfume. Testing is what goes on in Room 101, complete with an O’Brien and a caged rat.
But it’s also the – pernicious, I think – idea that testing is mean. It’s mean to test little children with sweet smiles, round, watery eyes and floppy fringes; it’s mean to make children repeat facts which they’ve been told (and pointless, because even if they remember it that isn’t real learning); it’s mean to ask children to say what their score was out loud because what if they didn’t do very well? And it’s mean to then rank the children because it isn’t their fault if they can’t remember it because some children aren’t very good at remembering things.
A conversation I had this week.
I’d told an entire Year 9 class to return at break because not one had managed to get over 4/20 in a test which I’d asked them to learn for homework. They were told, quite firmly, that this was unacceptable. I required them to remember a number of dates in order to better understand how Nazi Germany developed. They returned. Every single student bettered their previous score, many well into double figures. The next lesson they all, bar one, moved into double figures.
A Year 10 class, taking the same test, had the same initial results. This time, when I explained how disappointed I was, bemused and angry faces stared back. ‘It’s not our fault if we can’t remember all these. How do you expect us to learn them?’
Because you have to. Tough. Excuse me for having high expectations.
‘It is the most basic requirement that you remember these facts. If you went to a swimming pool you’d expect water as the bare minimum, yes? Well, you must remember the dates of these events. As a minimum. If your excuse is that you’re not good at remembering then you better get practising.’
Testing is love.
It is no good giving students the tools to learn, electronic or otherwise, trying to develop their skills – whatever that means (and there are no skills in history, so I don’t even know where I’d start in any case*) – and putting on hours of revision sessions if they can’t, or won’t, remember the basic facts. And the most simple, effective and quick way to do this is through frequent, low-stakes testing.
Testing is love. It is how we show we care. It is how we know that children care, or not. It’s how we can infer what’s going on at home, what we need to do to help and what they need to do to succeed. Sometimes it’s embarrassing. Sometimes it’s brutal. But testing is vital: it’s tough love, but it’s love.
*No, there aren’t. A skill in history, at least, is procedural knowledge: it’s the context, the appropriateness of the approach and the response. That isn’t a skill. That’s domain specific capital.