The narrow focus of assessment

You’ve probably all seen it this Summer.  The letter from Barrowford Primary School to a student where the school sets out to reassure the student that his results only reflected a small aspect of who his is.

Here’s the letter in full:

Letter to student

Many people have lauded the school and its approach.  But let’s look a little closer.

This letter is from a primary school, and the exams the student took were apparently for Key Stage 2.  According to Wikipedia, this stage assesses students in the age of 7 – 11.

I personally have a problem with this.  I understand the need to ensure students progress academically.  But formal exams for 7 year olds?  At what stage did we give up on childhood and adapt a utilitarian approach in all we do?  Maybe the children can get a day off occasionally to clean a chimney somewhere?

We rely on tests too much.  The education systems in England and Ireland seem to cry out for some sort of standardised assessment that will ensure the teachers are doing their job, and that we can measure students’ progress.

We have bought into a culture where our children are valued based on what they achieve.  Play for the sake of play is getting rarer and rarer.  You like sport? Join a team and train a few nights a week.  You like dancing, finish each term with a competition, where you may or may not EARN a medal.  And we, as parents, join in.

We miss the whole point that our kids have, each of them, unique and wonderful characteristics.  By excessively tying them down to a narrow focus, we risk blocking out a whole range of their creativity, their personality.

I like the image below:

test qualitiesImage from:

So in the month and week following the release of the Leaving Certificate and Junior Certificate results respectively, we could do with looking at what we are actually doing to our children.

If we follow the English model, we will end up examining children from the age of 7, and keep this up until after they finish college.

This is punishing on all concerned: the student who may not achieve the results that others think he/she should; the parents worried that results should be better; and the teachers who worry about their own assessments.

In the year ahead the teacher unions in Ireland are going to challenge the Department of Education and Skills over the issue of assessment in the new Junior Cycle School Award.  Particularly contentious is the issue of in-school assessment.  Who does the assessment, and how is the assessing standardised.  (Who assesses the assessors?)

We need to open a very, very wide discussion on where we are going with education in Ireland.  Ultimately, what is the point of education, and what, really, are our aims at the different stages of childrens’ development.  And, of course, will we put the proper resources in place in order to ensure the best outcome (to use the lingo) for the whole education system.


8 thoughts on “The narrow focus of assessment

  1. I have the same thoughts John, what are you doing to change this? Have you find any resource to provide a better space for children to study?

    • I don’t know if changing this is down to an individual. However, individuals can join together and speak out to challenge systems.
      On an individual basis, let the way you interact with children show them that they are valued and respected for more than their academic ability

      • Totally agreed john, do you have a group where you do discuss how to change it a bit? I’m trying to build a group with my Facebook page learn’n’share (sorry but it is in brazilian portuguese) and I’m building my own startup for education. I think we can move forward, not alone, of course.
        One great thing that I know is, spreading higher education for people far away.

  2. Reblogged this on teachykeen blog and commented:
    I am definitely someone who does not agree with formal testing and evaluations in education! Now i understand why we need to be aware of our students progress so that we can assist in their learning, but i agree with what John Hurley says here. I also don’t understand why formal tests are being administered to 7 year olds! There are just some things that cannot be measured with tests! So i guess I am anti-standardized testing.

    • I think you’re on the right way shay, I read your blog intro a little and I saw your graduation course, so how is it going? Do people now have an open mind about new ways of testing/measuring student’s progress in life and science? 😀

  3. John Not sure how relevant this comment is to your thoughts but on the discussions of teachers assessing their own students for Junior Cert – if this had been the way when i did leaving cert ( many moons ago) I would certainly fallen down in my Home Economics – I did higher level and was constantly getting B’s to A’s during 5th & 6th year – B in the Pre’s – had a discussion with my teacher to say I was not going to take up a place in Sion Hill where Home Economics teachers were trained as I had decided to follow a different career path – my following assignment results were a D! no less effort put in on my part just a disgruntled teacher who felt she had wasted her time on me because I wasnt following her choosen career. I did get a higher level A in the leaving but assessment by teacher could have been a different result. There are many personality clashes between teachers and students that could taint the view of that students result and equally so if a student genuinely didnt do well could feel greaved when they didnt get a good mark .

    • I think that bias (either for or against) has to be one of the concerns of any assessment system where the teacher knows the student.
      I spent three years correcting the Junior Cert Religion paper, and something that struck me was the fairness of the system. I had no knowledge of students whose work I was correcting.
      Of course, in the state exams you also have to work to a very strict marking criterion.

  4. Pingback: Just what are schools for? | John Hurley

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