Teachers are better than exams

Exam season is nearly over. Students and teachers alike will soon breathe a sigh of relief, put away their pens and calculators and enjoy a well-deserved summer holiday. Yet the controversy around the pressures of our ‘testing culture’ rages on.

When even Ofsted’s Chief Inspector is urging teachers not to ask students how they are feeling about their papers lest they provoke more anxiety, surely it is time to reassess assessment. Is there a way to measure students’ progress that does not rely disproportionately on stress-inducing, one-size-fits-all exams?

The answer is yes. Trust teachers. According to a compressive study in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, teachers’ assessments are just as reliable as exams at predicting educational outcomes. The study found that these correlated strongly with test results across English, Maths and Science from ages 7 to 14, with both measures equally effective at predicting later success at GCSE and A level.

There may well be a place for standardised testing in our education system, if only to objectively judge the performance of schools and to what extent they are effectively serving their students. However, the evidence of the reliability of teachers’ assessments, especially at primary school level, is demonstrated in the study; and if we could make testing less stressful, possibly even enjoyable, why wouldn’t we?

Part of the problem is political point scoring on an already testy subject. Last month Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn announced that a future Labour Government would scrap SATs. In response, schools minister Nick Gibb accused Labour of planning to “keep parents in the dark”. This of course begs the question, ‘Who are SATs for?’ – parents, Government league tables, Ofsted? Regardless of which side of the debate you stand on, the reality is that the UK ranks 15th for Science, 27th for Maths and 22nd for Reading in the international PISA league table, and young people’s prospects rely increasingly on their education. The question of how our society assesses its youngest members matters more than ever.  

There is a fine line between testing that pushes a student to the edge of their ability, and testing that reduces them to unhealthy levels of stress. This is something we should be doing more to improve on, and that begins with empowering teachers. With insight into a student’s day-to-day learning and performance, teachers are uniquely placed to measure their trajectory. Rather than place all emphasis on the results of a single day of testing, why not capitalise on this insight?

Crucially, the ability of teachers to assess students has been fundamentally transformed and enhanced by the technological tools they now have at their disposal. In my experience from visiting schools across the country, access to accurate, real-time data on students’ maths and literacy skills on an online platform has significantly reduced the time it takes to make an informed judgment. Harnessing the data gathered by ed-tech, teachers can now better track progress, locate pinch points, and tailor their lessons and assignments to individual students accordingly.

Teachers’ assessments are not only becoming more incisive and reliable, but also more meaningful for the student than traditional testing. A SAT score doesn’t evidence how a student can progress – but a teacher can.

Giving less weight to high-stakes testing reduces the strain on educators and students, and makes learning more fulfilling too. The benefits would doubtless not only be reflected in the mental health of our schools, but in their performance.

Standardised exams may well have a role to play in the future of education, but the technological revolution means it is time to give a greater say to the people who know the students best. The teachers.

Margaret Allen

Former Teacher and Curriculum and Education Specialist at Renaissance Learning UK