Monday, 12 December 2011

Another failure for the exam-based system

Sarah* is in many ways an ideal student: she is hard-working in class and keen to participate without trying to dominate proceedings; she makes an effort to speak English both with me and with her class mates; she is always on task; and she is very creative, producing beautiful project work, informative writing and entertaining short stories. I always let her know what a good student she is and how well she is doing and we have a good rapport.

Imagine my surprise then when her mother came to see me this morning to say how she came home upset on Friday saying that there was no point in doing her homework (which she usually does with enthusiasm as soon as she gets home) because she was never going to be any good at English. Obviously, her family were shocked to see her like this as was I when I heard about it.

Why was Sarah so upset? Because of a test score

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Image by Megan Skelly

I teach on the ‘conversation’ programme at my school. Despite the title attached to it, we actually work on their writing skills, reading comprehension and preparation for the Cambridge Young Learner Exams. One of the biggest challenges of these lessons is getting the kids to take it seriously. They often see us as their secondary English teacher (they have a non-native speaker as a ‘grammar’ teacher) and, if you let them, they can treat the lessons as ‘free time’. In order to add more weight to our lessons, it is the opinion of some (not me I should add) the we must have some tests, not a full test as we only see the students for a few hours each week but a test nonetheless.

And so, 2 weeks ago, I had to give a 25 question listening test based on questions from the KET exam, even though the students are getting ready for the Flyers test, which is one level lower! Naturally, they found it quite hard and results were mixed. Sarah got 72%, much lower than the 90%+ she gets in tests in the grammar lesson. I have spoken to her since, reminding her that the test is only a small part of the final grade I will give. Her project work is excellent as is her effort in class and her contributions to our student wiki site so her average will be much higher. That made her feel better but I still feel that I should have never had to have this talk with her in the first place. She should have never had to feel like this in the first place.
So, do these tests ‘add weight’ to my lessons? Do they make the students take them more seriously? I hardly think so. I try hard to show kids the value of my lessons through the work we do in class and the opportunities we create to use and develop our skills in English and that is what makes them value my lessons. Throw in a test and it becomes all about the grade and the stress that comes with it - a hindrance more than a help…

What’s your take on this situation? Are tests good for motivating students? Or is it the teacher’s duty to make sure the kids are motivated anyway?

*not her real name

12 comments:

  1. Hi Dave,
    I wonder who decides what tests to give to the students? Isn't is the teacher? How can the students be given a test that does not correspond to their level? How can a test assess something that has not been previously taught? These are the things that I don't understand.
    If the test is relevant and built in accordance with the teaching input, students should not fail or experience frustration.

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  2. I think the mistake was giving the child a score when it wasn't necessary. Use the information to inform instruction. Grades are part of the problem with education as they are extrinsic motivators, which research shows don't work. Read my summary of "Drive" by Daniel Pink at http://bit.ly/jl7ara. Keep up the good work.

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  3. Hi Baiba - That's just it. In this case, it wasn't me who decided on the test, the style of the test or the content of the test. All these decisions came from above - frustrating for me and for the students...

    Douglas - I understand your point but I had little choice. I was obliged to give the test and also to inform the students of their grade. I just wish I had the choice to make such decisions in my own students' best interests.

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  4. Hi Dave,

    Good post.Lots of my students in France don't do anything until a test in involved which means low attendance until the last few weeks and then cramming. I've even been asked "what's in the test?".I one uni a kid even brought a copy of the test to the test with his answers on.Still don't know where he got it from the little...

    Phil

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  5. Hello Dave,

    It is very common in Turkey to have such kind of nightmares both as a student and as a teacher! I named it as a nightmare because when you're a student, you feel like it is the end of the word if you can't get the mark you aimed and as a teacher to see your students in such a position kills you deep inside!

    I have experienced both situations! I cant decide which one is the worst!

    I would agree with Douglas at this point and indicate the unnecessity of the exam scores! Especially, at young ages. The results should be given in a more qualitative way, you know comments on it, discussing the rights and wrong. This would have been much more helpful and absolutely less stressful!

    Keep up good work great teacher!

    Cheers,
    Luna.

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  6. Hi Dave,
    I know I teach in a slightly different system than you do, but I hate giving tests for the sake of giving them. I don't mind assessing students but I think authentic assessments are much more useful to me and to the student. I would be gutted if an assessment I gave a student ended with them feeling this way, as I am sure you would. I think keeping kids interested, challenged and engaged is what gives weight to our lessons.
    Keep doing what you are doing, keep encouraging kids like Sarah and keep reaching them!!!

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  7. I can't see the sense in giving the children a test from a higher level. I recognise some warped logic, i.e. if they do worse it will make them work harder, but can't agree with that. Had they even been introduced to the questions on the KET exam previously?!

    Rotten situation, clearly not fair to you or the students. Are you able to feedback this story to the people who decided on the test? Maybe they will think twice before doing it again.

    I think regular mini-tests and quizzes can be useful, without them being attached to any formal evaluation, it can be motivating. However, I think that more testing generally means students focus on test scores to evaluate their learning, rather than learning to evaluate their progress by themselves.

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  8. Hi Dave,
    It's not quite fair to say that KET is a level up from Flyers - they're both pitched at level A2 (http://www.cambridgeesol.org/assets/img/content/about/cefr-diagram-large.jpg).
    Nonetheless - they're aimed at a completely different target group and I understand both your frustration and Sarah's upset.
    I would argue that it's not really the test that is the problem - it's the system that forces us to compete and differentiate ourselves by using test scores in the first place. Surely Sarah's achievement issues are driven by being in a system that values test scores in the first place?
    On another note - it's very difficult to (a) find or (b) write tests for young learners that actually meet validity and reliability standards. I can understand why KET ended up being used, even if it wasn't entirely appropriate.

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  9. Personally, I like tests and feel they have their place in my course, but ones we make collectively based on what we've been working on and practising in class, not standardised ones someone on the outside makes. In many cases, culturally grades are an inherent motivator and despite your best efforts to change that, you might motivate two or three otherwise, but why not reach them all? It's idealistic to assume you can shake the value of grades altogether, so work with them.

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  10. Good info here. Long time reader, first time poster....keep it up please!

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  11. Phil - don't you just think in those situations "why didn't s/he put that much effort into learning in the first place?" :D

    Luna - thanks for your comment. As I said in the post, giving the test was not my decision and giving the scores to the kids was not my decision either but I had to do it, especially as my students knew their friends in other classes had been told their scores already.

    Angela - I agree with you completely. Assessment itself is not the problem, it's the way it's done and the fact that it's only being done just to have a test, no other reason. Tests need to have a real purpose and be part of the learning process.

    Richard - Part of the problem is that nobody wants to be lumped with preparing tests. The easiest thing to do is to pick a ready-made test and gicve it to the kids... We can't use anything from Fşyers apparently because it's used for prep courses later in the year so they opt for KET instead (maybe because it's also A2 as David Petrie said). The most frustrating thing is that there is just no regard for what's best for the kids. It's all about being able to 'show' parents the grades and 'motivate' kids with them.

    David - I agree that the test itself wasn't the problem. The whole point of the post was to criticise the system. :) Last year, there were no such tests and I think the kids appreciated the fact theat they were just learning for learning's sake. With these tests in place, it all becomes about the grade.

    Tyson - I have no problem with giving grades or assessments, just so long as it is for the right reasons. Just giving a test so that we can say we've given a test is not good enough. Also, I would have given a grade at the end of the semester regardless of doing the test or not as it is required for the report card. Without this test, that grade would have been based solely on work done in class, projects and a presentation they will do next month. think that would reflect their true abilities in English much more fairly.

    Lina - thanks. :) Keep reading and commenting!

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  12. Hi Dave,

    I am of the camp which believes tests should be part of the learning process not a break from it.

    I want tests to be times for them to see what they have learned and set new goals. So I give them a limited time and then ask them to *circle* the tough questions.

    That helps me notice where they are unsure-even if it's not for the reasons I think, sometimes. It also helps me notice where they are unsure but guessing correctly.

    Then after they have circled they can "cheat" for 5 minutes. That is they share with a partner so they can engage the with their "progress process" socially as they are most motivated right at that moment.

    I can't do this on every test but it is a great way to remind them that we want them to communicate be better (social) learners not more private ones. It's perfect trick to pull on spelling tests.

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