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Summative Testing Overuse Narrows the Curriculum and Adds to Teacher Workload

February 8, 2018, 16:33 GMT+1
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  • Without clarity as to its purpose, primary assessment will only sap teachers’ time and not tell us what we need to know, says Will Millard
Summative Testing Overuse Narrows the Curriculum and Adds to Teacher Workload

In November last year, a report titled ‘Testing The Water’, published by LKMco and Pearson, found that teachers spend too much time conducting summative assessments – ie those which seek to test pupils’ knowledge and skills across a larger area of learning. As a result, formative diagnostic assessments that show teachers where pupils need additional support are being sidelined.

School leaders feel under pressure to produce ‘up to date’ data for Ofsted, despite Ofsted stating it doesn’t expect to see tracking data presented in any particular format. Yet the stakes attached to school inspection are so high that many schools are undertaking regular summative assessments from a perceived need to have such data to hand, just in case inspectors come knocking.

Schools also sometimes overuse summative assessments in the hope they’ll provide formative information. While it is possible to use some summative assessments formatively, it’s not always efficient. A practise SATs paper might reveal questions pupils struggle with, but may not help the teacher understand the root issue.

Overuse of summative assessments can additionally sap teachers’ time, contribute to already substantial piles of marking and cause a narrowing of the curriculum. Teachers may feel short-term pressures to focus on teaching content they know will be tested, rather than follow a broader curriculum with a longerterm pay off. Furthermore, by dictating both how and what pupils learn, a focus on summative assessments reduces teachers’ (and pupils’) enjoyment of teaching and learning.

In ‘Testing The Water’ we call on leaders to support teachers in using assessments with a clear and specific purpose. In practice, this means establishing a clear division of labour between diagnostic formative assessment that’s embedded into day-to-day classroom teaching, and occasional summative tests that help identify pupils’ attainment levels, benchmarked against their peers and national standards.

The report cites St Matthias Primary School in Tower Hamlets, which exemplifies this approach by using a careful mix of techniques. While these vary from subject to subject, common strategies include daily ‘do nows’, which test pupils’ knowledge of recently taught content, giving teachers information about what has and hasn’t been learnt. Teachers then use ‘check its’ to test pupils’ knowledge of particular topics three weeks after the content was first taught, showing the teacher what pupils have retained. By prompting pupils to retrieve content they’ve learnt previously, these assessments help to embed pupils’ knowledge.

St Matthias pupils take termly summative assessments in writing and maths, multiple-choice quizzes at the end of units in humanities subjects and science, and then larger quizzes at the end of the year. Pupils also sit standardised assessments in reading and maths, enabling the school to compare pupils’ achievements against those of their peers nationally. School leaders must identify what it is they want to use assessments for, and then design appropriate assessments accordingly. Clearly delineating between assessments that serve formative and summative ends will help improve the efficacy of these assessments, while keeping teachers’ workloads to a minimum.

Will Millard is a Senior Associate at the education and youth think and action tank, LKMco