De-stressing testing: low stakes, modelled and purposeful

Observing education from outside, and especially the narratives around SATs and GCSEs can lead new and early-career teachers to want to reject and reduce the amount of testing students have to endure. This was my first reaction upon entering teaching, I wanted to scrap assessment altogether and teach students in a holistic way where they didn’t feel the pressure or stress of constant testing.

What I have since come to find is that the stress around testing is not intrinsically linked to the idea of assessment but rather to the culture we put on testing in our classrooms and the quality of our teaching in order to prepare students to master assessment. In Making Good Progress? Daisy Christodoulou writes that formative assessment “doesn’t just help measure understanding; it helps develop understanding”. That is a statement that took me a while to come round to as I developed my own pedagogy but it’s one I can now see playing out in my classroom.

In my view we can reduce student stress and anxiety around assessment in three major ways: regular low-stakes, high success testing, modelling to increase mastery and independence and making assessments purposeful through feedback. 

Regular low-stakes, high success testing

2019-03-21 20_01_09
One of my Year 9 mid-year throwaway tests

Whether it’s on a whiteboard, a scrap of paper, in the back of books or on disposable test sheets I think that introducing regular, low-stakes, multiple-choice testing has been one of the biggest revolutions in my classroom. In Making Every Lesson Count, Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby describe how we have a tendency as teachers to ruminate on the macro over the micro, getting students to think about entire exam papers rather than focusing on finessing small, detailed skills. A multiple-choice test can really zero in on those micro areas of knowledge and quickly dismiss misconceptions.

It is often more useful to first spend time on the small details that contribute cumulatively to an answer. If not, students can embed huge misunderstandings into their thinking that then become difficult to reverse.

So whilst I do think there is a need to move to the macro (in the form of understanding concepts in RE), I also think that a focus on the micro is not only an effective way of practicing application of the macro but also vital to avoid embedding wrong information. To make these tests worthwhile they need to be low stakes and they need to have a high success rate.

Rosenshine in Principles of Instruction, says we should aim for 80% success rates which is something to bear in mind when writing the tests. To make them low stakes is easy, just go around with a bin or the whiteboard erasers after the test, if students are proud they can take a photo or keep their paper. You might worry that students won’t see progress if they can’t see their previous scores but if you are aiming to keep the success rate at the same level you won’t be able to make direct comparisons anyway.

Modelling to increase mastery and independence

One of the six main principles in Making Every Lesson Count is modelling. In some schools modelling is a deeply embedded practice, I think of a school I trained in in Oxford where modelling was second-nature to teachers and students across every department and I think of another school I trained in where I was told off for modelling answers because it was ‘spoon-feeding’ the students. In my own practice I fall more into the former category seeing modelling not as spoon-feeding but as essential to building mastery.

To my mind nothing is more liable to induce huge amounts of assessment-related stress than to run through the structure of a GCSE paper with Year 9 and then expect them to complete one with no modelling. Allison and Tharby provide this really helpful guide on the process from modelling to independence. It’s a process I’ve followed with my mid-and-low-ability Year 9s this year and I can tell you: it works.

2019-03-31 10_37_53
adapted from Making Every Lesson Count

Modelling doesn’t just mean giving students a perfect 12/12 mark answer and saying ‘do that’. There are a whole bunch of different methods to try. There’s Live Modelling where you narrate your own thought process and explain your mistakes and successes writing an answer in front of the class. There’s sharing the good work of other students, there’s providing work with deliberate errors and mistakes for students to correct and, a little further down the line, there’s co-construction where students work together with the teacher to create a model.

All of this naturally leads to a reduction of student stress and anxiety around assessment (both summative and formative) because of the undeniable fact that modelling aids independence and independence builds confidence and mastery.

Making assessments purposeful through feedback

This really goes without saying but I would be remiss if I didn’t say it: assessment has to be followed up on and that follow-up has to be meaningful and purposeful. Stress will occur if students don’t understand why they’ve failed to master a skill or what errors they’ve made and how to avoid them in the future. We, as a profession, need to move away from seeing assessment as a way of generating “progress data”, even the government is openly admitting that the use of data across teaching is deeply flawed. As Daisy Christodoulou says: “not only are absolute judgements based on rubrics unreliable, but the existence of the rubric has damaging consequences for teaching”.

For me feedback is an area I am giving a lot of thought to at the moment. I know I want to try and improve my own practice in that area and I am doing a lot of reading in order to do that. Given that is the case I won’t try and espouse one method over another but I will say that when students say they don’t understand where they’ve gone wrong or where they feel like they get the same feedback every time with no idea how to improve, it’s tempting to think the students aren’t taking your feedback on board but we have to be honest with ourselves and say that it might be our feedback which is not having the desired effect. A lack of good feedback impedes progress and a lack of progress creates disillusionment and stress around assessments.

Further Reading

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s