In my school, a relatively new and rapidly growing disease presents itself during the spring term. Test fever strikes teachers, pupils and, more recently parents, with its symptoms of test-practising, level comparison and the associated rise in levels of fear, uncertainty and anxiety. I know the problem is not limited to our school; both secondary and primary colleagues discuss the onset of similar symptoms at times of statutory assessment and at times of review, even increasingly in relation to summative assessments undertaken throughout the year. Where the stakes are high in relation to assessments, examinations, performance tables and reported performance-related data, the disease seems to gain in prevalence and to affect a growing number of personnel involved in schools.
The review was prompted by a concern to identify the impact of summative assessment and testing on students' motivation for learning. It was funded by the Nuffield Foundation and the Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Co-ordinating Centre (the EPPI-Centre) and conducted using the EPPI-Centre's procedures for systematic review of educational research. The process involved searching as thoroughly as possible for research studies involving pupils aged between 4 and 18 and addressing the relationship between summative assessment and pupils' motivation for learning. From an initial large number of studies, those meeting specific criteria relating to validity and reliability were the basis for the findings of the report.
Response to growing concerns
At the very least, in relation to the role of the headteacher, the report provides the beginnings of an antidote to the advancing disease of assessment fever. It provides a way of recognising some of the concerns we may see and feel regarding assessment practices within our schools; and, more importantly, a valuable mechanism for considering and re-evaluating the place and practice of summative assessment in our classrooms.
It seems crucial, if we are to take this report seriously, for headteachers to consider the role of formative and summative assessment in schools, particularly in relation to the amount of time that is increasingly allocated to it, and in relation to the effect it may have on pupils' perceptions of themselves as achievers and learners. In addition, a question being raised more frequently and addressed in the report, is whether improvements in attainment are a result of teaching to tests rather than of developing pupils as competent, motivated partners in the learning process.
Key findings for headteachers to consider
The key findings of the report are outlined below. Without doubt, they provide headteachers and senior management staff in schools with a framework for considering the management of summative assessment within their schools.
Key findings from the report
- Teachers have a key role in supporting students to put effort into their learning activities. Feedback on assessments has an important role in determining further learning. Judgemental feedback may influence students' views of their capability and likelihood of succeeding. Teacher feedback that focuses on students' capabilities rather than the task can influence the effort they put into further learning.
- Students evaluate their own work all the time and how they do this depends on the classroom assessment climate; they will do it in terms of performance rather than learning in summative assessment-dominated classrooms.
- High stakes assessment can create a classroom climate in which transmission teaching and highly structured activities predominate, and which favour only those students with certain learning dispositions.
- Teachers can be very effective in training students to pass tests, even when they do not have the understanding or higher order thinking skills that the tests are intended to measure.
- The validity of the tests as useful indicators of students' attainment is challenged by the narrowness of the instruments and the way in which students are trained to answer the questions.
- When passing tests is 'high stakes', teachers adopt a teaching style which emphasises transmission teaching of knowledge, thereby favouring those students who prefer to learn in this way and disadvantaging and lowering the self-esteem of those who prefer more active and creative learning experiences. High-stakes testing can become the rationale for all that is done in classrooms and can permeate teachers' own assessment interactions.
- Repeated practice tests reinforce the low self-image of the lower achieving students
- Tests can influence teachers' classroom assessment, which is interpreted by students as purely summative regardless of the teacher's intentions, possibly as a result of teachers' over-concern with performance rather than process.
- Students are aware of the performance ethos in the classroom and that the tests give only a narrow view of what they can do.
- Students dislike high-stakes tests, show high levels of test anxiety (particularly girls) and prefer other forms of assessment.
It is clear that the findings of the review indicate possible potential negative impacts of summative assessment on motivation for learning in some circumstances.
The review includes some recommendations for addressing these. The recommendations, summarised below, require teachers and headteachers to work together to analyse how testing is affected within their schools and indeed what the primary aims and expectations of such practices are. The stakes are particularly high for pupils who may become disenfranchised by a system that focuses too strongly on data supplied through summative assessment practices, and which fails to take account of more lasting motivational factors.
What might be done to improve practice
Recommendations for improving practice in summative assessment
- Reduce the narrowing impact on the curriculum and on teaching methods by professional development that emphasises learning goals and learner-centred teaching approaches. Share and emphasise learning goals with students, not performance goals, and provide feedback to students in relation to these goals.
- Share in developing and implementing a school-wide policy that includes assessment both for learning (formative) and of learning (summative) and ensure that the purpose of all assessment is clear to all involved, including parents and students.
- Develop students' understanding of the goals of their learning, the criteria by which it is assessed and their ability to assess their own work.
- Implement strategies for encouraging self-regulation in learning and positive interpersonal relationships.
- Avoid comparisons between students based on test results.
- Present assessment realistically, as a process that is inherently imprecise and reflexive, with results that have to be regarded as tentative and indicative rather than definitive.
These recommendations, some of which may already be examples of good practice in our schools, form a basis for headteachers to use in developing a more positive approach to the practice of summative assessment in schools, and a means of redressing the pressures mentioned earlier and of equalising the stakes for all pupils.
Schools and organisations concentrating on the inclusion agenda might benefit from considering the review's findings in relation to providing an assessment programme that provides information regarding all pupils on an equal basis. The report provides comprehensive reading relating to the practice of summative assessment and testing in relation to pupils' motivation for learning. In reaching an understanding of these issues, and considered in conjunction with the Assessment Reform Group's Assessment for Learning, Ten Principles,* the review carries important messages for headteachers and their staff to address when assessment practices in schools are being developed.