Assessing Testing

4 Jan

Confession time for me.  It is easy to pontificate if one is a consultant as I am.  When in charge of an organisation or institution and constantly under the public microscope, it is a different matter.   So, what follows may well be in a sermonising vein.  But don’t pass judgement until you have read what follows.

Competition does not have the kind of benefits the UK government’s claims it does.  This is not to say that it is unnecessary.  However, much credence has been given to its seeming advantages.

We need tests and examinations to determine how well our children are doing and ensure that the young people who qualify to become the future movers and shakers of our society succeed in life.   I wouldn’t like to be operated on (for the removal of a cancerous tumour) by an unqualified surgeon who hasn’t passed a raft of medical examinations.

However, the value we put on tests, examinations and league tables has a detrimental effect on those schools/academies who are struggling to improve the quality of education.   To start with, tests and examinations tell us only so much about what is happening in an institution, which has responsibility for imparting to future generations the knowledge and wisdom of the current and previous generations together with helping them develop skills to navigate the chopping waters of the future.

Outstanding schools/academies go even further.  They develop children in the fullest sense possible.  The legislation prescribes that their responsibilities encompass the spiritual, moral, social and educational development of young people, so that they (these young people) not only succeed in holding down demanding jobs in the years to come but also leading full, fulfilled and happy lives.  It is impossible to measure through tests and examinations how well pupils will do well after their leaving the institutions.

The trouble with our system is that we value what is immediately measurable and cannot measure what so often is valuable if not invaluable.  What premium do we give, for instance, to young people, who go the second, third and fourth miles to give succour to the disadvantaged and/or disabled, by offering their time during the school/academy holidays doing voluntary work – taking them on excursions organised by charities?

Where we can measure success, it is frequently not absolute terms.  We begin comparing pupils’ achievements with one another, in rank order, within the institution and among the institutions.   We rarely do it in terms of the progress that the pupils make.

In my view, there is merit in persuading every child to compete with her/himself.   For instance, the mother who praises her son for securing 80% in a mathematics test and then sits down with him to discuss what caused him to fail to secure the other 20% so that next time he does even better, should be commended.   (Of course, the ultra-bright girl who secures 100% should be applauded for that achievement and exhorted to repeat the performance the next time she sits a test.

Competition is a zero-sum game.   If I win, you lose and vice versa.   Schools and academies have greater worth if they can develop community mindsets where as many young people as possible succeed against absolute standards rather than being first in their classes.  Sociologists would dub this “self-actualisation” – the pleasure one derives from solving an intractable problem or getting to the top of Everest.  If there is to be competition, every person should compete with her/himself.

Several eons ago, when I was at a school in India, I was fortunate in having an extraordinary mathematics teacher. I grew to love the subject very much, so much so, that he paired me off with a struggling peer to help him become better.   I spent many pleasurable hours, working out solutions to intractable riders, not just difficult to him but also to me.   I could solve them more easily than he, but by helping him, I developed better and more rooted concepts in mathematics, from which I benefit till today.

Pep Guardiola, the Manchester City football manager, is a striking exemplar of this approach.  Matthew Syed, The Times journalist, wrote in his paper on 26 November 2018: “Guardiola’s trick has been to measure his players not just on how well they perform, but also on how well they raise the performance of team-mates. Players are incentivised not just to elevate themselves, but to elevate those around them.”

Within our schools and academies, we need to give a bit more thought to that nuanced strategy with a view to helping as many of our young people achieve rather than being at the tops of their classes.  Schools and academies may wish to pay less heed to where they stand in the league tables and aim to develop their pupils so that they strive to achieve as well as possible.

Development is accelerated when individuals work in concert rather than compete with one another.  Examine a colony of ants to see what I mean.   At least that was what Syed suggested his Times readers do in his article, ln praise of unsung heroes: game now about Milners not Van Nistelrooys on 24 September 2019.

In his 95 Premier League goals, Ruud Van Niselrooys scored 48 at home and 47 away. In 1998/99, prior to Ruud Van Nistelrooys’s arrival, Manchester United won the title, the European Cup and the Football Association (FA) cup, a triple glory.  In successive years – 1999/2000 and 2001/02 – the club won the English title.  However, following Ruud’s arrival in 2001, Manchester United won only once in the next five seasons.  He scored the goals, but his club, Manchester United did not do as well as it did prior to his joining the club.

Success is best facilitated in seeking others’ success, happiness and fulfilment. Pupils grow when they help others to grow.  Also, teachers and parents should applaud them when they improve and make steady progress in their learning.  Coming at the top of the class is much less important, in the same way that it is much less significant that a school/academy is at the top of a league table.

“Oh dear!” I hear you say, “he is pontificating – again.”

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