Written in 2003 in reply to a debate on testing on the ELT News website in Japan
On testing – there is a British context to the debate. Teachers in mainstream schools here are so busy evaluating that there is little time for teaching. Last week, I was listening to BBC Radio 4, where the Head Teacher of a school which had done well in the new English league tables for school evaluation was debating with the Minister for Education ( Scotland and Wales don’t use the same system). In spite of his school having done well, the Head Teacher was still arguing against constant testing, saying that music, art, humanities, craft, sport etc were all being squeezed out by single-minded attention to the “three Rs” (reading, riting and rithmetic). The Minister replied that 10 years ago, before the constant tests were introduced, only 50% of 11 year olds were functionally literate. Now, he boasted, it’s 75%.
The obvious reply to both is that 40 years ago it was around 90% and there was still time for art and music and sport, but there was less evaluation, grading and testing. There has to be a balance. In reality, the constant testing that plagues British schools is designed to test THE TEACHER as much as the kids, and is designed to force the teacher to jump through a series of government defined hoops rather than do his or her own thing. It may be that these government-set goals provide necessary guidance to some teachers and therefore improve their performance, but they undoubtedly cramp the style and diminish the creativity of others. I doubt that Britain is unique!
This morning, while shopping, I watched two different 20-somethings painfully writing out details of orders. They wrote badly and with difficulty because both were holding the pen awkwardly. It used to be that you taught kids how to hold a pen properly – work I did on writing for Arab students years ago emphasized pen grip and pattern-making before letter formation. There has to be attention to basic skills at all levels of education and sadly there was a generation of teachers who had neither been taught these skills themselves, nor how to teach them. The guidelines and goals were a heavy-handed attempt to redress a problem deep within the system. Grudgingly, I have to admit that they have succeeded in improving basic skills at the expense of so many of the things that should make education enjoyable. Often the tests and rankings that kids endure are really designed to be a watchdog on the teacher.
I would dispute however that you constantly have to rank people, and in doing so some people are permanently turned off – those who know they’re never going to get A grades. I was talking to the son of a friend of mine who left school with almost no pieces of paper. Because he was in the bottom stream, he’d actually studied four languages in four years. Why? Because the four language departments in the large comprehensive school all hated teaching languages to the C stream, so shared out the burden by doing a year each. What a total waste of time. He could (nearly) say Yes and No in French, Spanish, German and Italian. And he’d failed regular tests in all of them.
I’ll repeat my point, constant tests are great if you’re in the top 10%. Maybe challenging for the next 20%. After that they start to be tedious and then they become positively demotivating.
My feeling is that there is a solid role for motivational tests and self-testing as a type of learner skill. These sort of tests are a teaching technique, and require neither competition nor ranking.