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A systematic review of the impact of summative assessment and tests on students' motivation for learning. User perspective: a teacher

There are two competing claims for ways in which assessment can raise standards. On the one hand there is a common sense assumption that summative assessment, in the form of tests and examinations, is a key source of motivation for learning. In England, as in many states of the USA, where assessment for summative purposes has burgeoned in the past decade, a year-on-year improvement in test scores has been attributed, as least in part, to the implementation of tests. On the other hand the evidence from research into classroom assessment demonstrates that formative assessment - assessment that is integral to teaching and designed to help learning - raises standards.

On the face of it, if the claims for both summative assessment and formative assessment are valid, the two could co-exist in educational practice, combining to raise standards for all pupils. However, in practice this may not happen. A widely-expressed view of educators who have conducted research into summative assessment is that the improvement in test scores over time is due to greater familiarity of teachers and pupils with the tests, rather than increasing learning. Further, the use of test scores and examinations for purposes which affect the status or future of pupils, teachers or schools (that is, are 'high stakes') results in teachers focusing teaching on the test content, training pupils in how to pass tests, and adopting teaching styles which do not match the preferred learning style of many pupils. In these circumstances teachers make little use of assessment formatively, to help the learning process. Summative assessment has become, for many pupils, not a once-a-year event which might be considered to have a minor role in determining their attitude to learning. Rather it is a frequent experience which can have a detrimental impact on motivation for learning. Moreover, research shows that this decline is greater for the less successful pupils, tending to widen the gap between higher and lower achievers.

These concerns prompted a systematic review of research evidence designed to identify the impact of summative assessment and testing on pupils' motivation for learning. Whilst the impact of testing on teachers, on teaching and on pupils' achievement has been well researched, much less attention has been given to its impact on the personal experiences of pupils.

The research review uncovered a number of conclusions, summarised in a diagram. Various factors have been identified as having a significant effect on pupils' motivation for learning.

To view the diagram, click on the Assessment Diagram link on the left.

The procedures used in the review involved searching as thoroughly as possible for relevant studies and then applying criteria to find those focusing directly on the review question. In this way, 187 studies were whittled down to 19. Between them, these studies considered a number of aspects of motivation. The following main findings emerge from one or more individual studies:

  • Teachers have a key role in supporting pupils to put effort into their learning activities. Feedback on assessments has an important role in determining further learning. Judgemental feedback may influence pupils' views of their capabilities and likelihood of succeeding. Teacher feedback that focuses on pupils' capabilities rather than the task can influence the effort pupils put into further learning;
  • Pupils 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 pupils with certain learning dispositions;
  • Teachers can be very effective in training for test success, even when their pupils do not have the understanding or higher order thinking skills that the tests are intended to measure. As a result, the validity of tests as useful indicators of pupils' attainment is challenged by the narrowness of the instruments and the way in which pupils 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 pupils 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 pupils;
  • Tests can influence teachers' classroom assessment, which is interpreted by pupils as purely summative, regardless of teachers' intentions, possibly as a result of teachers' over-concern with performance rather than process;
  • Pupils are aware of the performance ethos in the classroom and that the tests give only a narrow view of what they can do;
  • Pupils dislike selection and high-stakes tests, show high levels of test anxiety (particularly girls) and prefer other forms of assessment.

Teachers and policy-makers need to recognise the characteristic change in schools and classrooms where the detrimental impact of testing regimes has begun to take hold. The consequences for pupils' learning - especially those most 'at risk' of disaffection - and the impact on their attitude to lifelong education should not be disregarded.

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