Have we become so allergic to tests that we are compressing practice into an unhelpfully late and short window? 

It is taken as read in English primary schools that preparing pupils for tests is an unwelcome but necessary evil.  For children, we worry about pressure and demoralisation. For ourselves, we worry about the way results reflect on our own performance, and the time lost to ‘practice’ that could have been spent on teaching.   Accordingly, most schools settle for a late introduction to tests in Year 6 to focus on test technique. The hope is that children will then be equipped to cash in all they have learnt without wasting too much time on superficial test technique.

And for most, this approach works, even if it does cost classroom time. Disconcertingly, many pupils report that they enjoy the new-style tests with their absolute ‘right or wrong’ answers.  They feel secure because they know what they have to do and it feels fair.

Others panic because there is no hiding place in ‘right or wrong’ tests, or if they are slow readers who are anxiously aware of the minutes sticking away, or if they have already tried hard and failed on previous tests.

The problem with compressing test preparation into the final part of Year 6 is that it is too late to remediate the big barriers to success.  Slow readers and labouring handwriters need to be identified well before Year 6 and helped to become speedier. Also, pupils who lack problem-solving strategies cannot be turned round in the last term.  And those who have gaps in their core knowledge cannot be filled in at the last minute because layers of misunderstanding and workarounds will have built up around the original hole in learning. Deep-rooted problems need deep-rooted solutions.

A different approach to testing is taken by secondaries who seek to normalise tests by using them at the end of each year, and sometimes hold theme-based tests at the end of each big topic. Now that we have greater focus on annual objectives, this might make good sense in primary too.

Firstly, annual tests offer an honest take on how much the child has retained from topics throughout the year.  It is not unusual to discover that early topics have faded. The test revives them and gives them new relevance to later topics. Revived topics seem easier second time round and misconceptions can be put right. Tests help to  keep skills in action

Secondly, test-specific handicaps such as slow reading, lack of stamina in writing and leaden arithmetical processes can be spotted early on.  These are problems that feel like established habits in Year 6, but are still malleable in the mid-years when there is plenty of time to put them right.

Thirdly, not every test skill is a mere technique. Unlocking difficult texts on your own, solving problems without help at hand, searching for nuance, writing at speed to a deadline, and spelling without a dictionary – to name a few – are not just skills for tests: these are skills that most people need in everyday life. The tougher challenge lies in accepting poor results. That’s not easy in any walk of life, but it is pretty important if we are to improve.

Fourthly, a gradual introduction to testing, done in a supportive environment and sensitively handled, normalises the experience and makes it less frightening. It also leaves less to do at the end.  The stress of the big build-up in spring can be reduced by preparing pupils more gently over a longer period.

What does it mean, to introduce tests more gradually and sensitively?  It means that you don’t have to use traditional test conditions every time you test: for example, tests do not need to be sat individually; they don’t need to have strict time limits; they don’t need to be marked numerically and they don’t need to be one-try tests.

Things to try:

  • Group answers – Arrange pupils in small mixed groups (3 works well) to discuss questions and offer a joint agreed answer. This gives weaker pupils an insight into the reasoning of able pupils.
  • Extra time – At the end of the allocated time, ask pupils to draw a line across the page and carry on. In this way, you will see where they have timing issues and nonetheless give them credit for how they answer the whole paper.
  • Second tries – Mark each question right or wrong then give pupils time to have a second go at the wrong answers. Don’t add up marks until the end of the second pass. This approach also alerts pupils to their most common mistakes and over time, they learn to avoid them.
  • Mistakes and errors – Distinguish in your marking between mistakes (e.g. computational mistakes and spelling slips) and errors of thought (e.g. using the wrong strategy or inferring incorrectly). They require different solutions.

The trick is to bring the test experience closer to the classroom experience and firm up the approach each year, to be a little more formal and extended so that the dress rehearsal in the spring of Year 6 is just a natural step on from previous experiences. In this way, testing is seen by pupils as just one of the ways we check on learning so we can plan ahead.

Think the unthinkable: to keep tests in their place, spread the load and do a little every year.  Turn down the temperature, start earlier and take it slowly.