The psychology effect behind test scores

I apologise now for the long winded nature, but in some ways this has been boiling inside me for a while and putting it in words has helped clear my mind.

The long, slow walk out of the tunnel into the olympic stadium, with millions of supporters watching you perform, analysing your every move is often nothing compared to the exceedingly high expectations give yourself to perform at the highest of levels in sport. The next few minuetes or seconds could make or break your career. Or as often the case, that running heat is completely insignificant in the grand scheme of events; I often feel overwhelming need to perform and achieve in exams, but often they are just a stepping stone to the next path.

My long walk across my primary school hall towards my teacher, awaiting my year six sats tests is something that is still vivid in my memory.  At the time I was optimistic considering I walked out of my English writing test, but after some gentle encouragement I returned to writing a letter to my local football team. I digress, but the emotion of the moment still lives with me, which was quickly shunned by head teacher telling me to “quieten down.”

Fast forward several years and the short walk across the road from my house to comprehensive school quite literary felt an eternity. I knew I performed well, but I never knew how well. It felt like it could be a career defining moment, but alas, though my results were some of the best in the year, in the grand scheme of events they mean absolutely nothing. Just another stepping stone to get into the next path of my career.

Fast forward again two years and Alevel results are just another hurdle to get into university. A hurdle in which my English teacher said with my predicted grades I could apply for pratically anything. There were no expectations for Alevel, the grades I recieved were expected and yet in some ways dissapointing. Alevels were intense, especially with all the coursework involved in Fine Art, Music and English Literature. Art was the only subject I had genuine natural ability in, the other two I worked solidly in to achieve, often failing miserable in my expectations of my self before achieving on par with my peers.

Yet again, these series of letters I received were just another stepping stone to University. But these numbers that are associated to examinations often mean a lot to the person who receive them. Up till now, letters were used to put a label across a range of result. Whereas University began the whole new concept of percentages; in turn creating a more accurate interpretation of ones achievement on an assessed essay than merely a letter. Until you get to your degree classification…

As a very intelligent friend of mine who studied International Relations and Politics put publicly after receiving his degree classification, ‘2:1 standard like everyone else. Decent though’, raises the conundrum with formative assessment, is it really a true representation of someones ability. This person in question recieved a first in his dissertation; worked alongside a senior Liberal Democrat politician, and has been published in several political journals. Yet the numbers ‘2:1′ does not show this, and shows much more to him and his ability than the numbers 2:1.

Society demands gaining degrees to enter certain fields of work. More and more people I know are turning to masters, not because they want a ‘head start’ in their proffession, but because they do not want to leave university. Will jobs really look at their degree classification if they are doing a masters, especially when doing something like graphic design, where a portfolio is a more accurate representation of someone’s ability than a degree. And as Kevin McLaughlin points out in regard to teaching ‘Would doing a Masters help make a teacher be a better teacher?’ But people still want good grades! They are a letter or number to class you and compare you against your peers, yet can cause people to be passionate about, and often disappointed with themselves.

Now for a cultural change, or as Monty Pithon puts it, now for something completely different.

Recently I was privileged to go to America in New York State and visit several schools. There were many stark contrasts in their education system compared to the United Kingdom, but one aspect that shocked me was their use of formative assessment. Not exactly their use of it, but the use of percentages. Percentages that are detrimental to assessing, and comparing a child’s ability through tests across all subjects. Initial I was taken aback, and thought I would really not like this method if I was in school. Below eighty percent was seen as under performing, whether this was a small twenty question maths test assessing their knowledge of the previous week maths work, or completing accelerate reading tests.

Michael Dix wrote an article on the guardian the other day titled ‘don’t get seduced by the data’ and wrote:

“Whatever it is, I am slightly reassured that from time to time a small voice inside interrupts my impassioned analyses and urges me to caution staff and governors not to get too hung up on the data because of its unreliable nature”

 Though this article was on about data in schools, and not only comparing test schools in England, I felt the advice “not to get too hung up on data” really hit home to me. Even though I do put huge pressure on myself, and have the ability to achieve, I get disappointed over receiving a number or letter for a piece of work I do when I know I can do better. Especially since my indicative marks in the last two years of university have exceeded my grades I now receive that count towards my degree classification. And it is this knowledge to not get ‘too hung up’ that will spur me to not to put pressure on my children in my class. They will hopefully all achieve in the own rights, and yes exams are a part of modern society, but they shouldn’t been seen as be all and end all of life. Some of the greatest people in society do not have degrees, and they are some of the pioneers of the modern age.

Having said that, the apparent pressure put on American children in receiving percentage grades does have to work, since both education systems in America and England have produced some of the greatest minds of the last century. Yet as both countries are going through national curriculum changes, I wonder what new pressures with be put on children to perform, especially since the media and government seem to be content driven and hooked on data analysis.

Its not looking good

Kevin McLaughlin – Our new national curriculum filling heads with knowledge for testing

Michael Rosen’s responses to the English Curriculum – Expert Panel team resignations, Four false models in one primary English curriculumWhat Gove wants, Gove getsDraft or Daft English Curriculum?

Conrad Wolfram’s response to the Maths Curriculum – Should long division be the pinnacle of primary Maths education?

The Guardian – Michael Gove’s curriculum attacked by expert who advised him.

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3 thoughts on “The psychology effect behind test scores

  1. […] Click here to read the original article on the author’s site where you can also comment. […]

  2. Hi James,

    Really interesting to read your reflections on graded assessment. I felt a similar experience as I went through school, feeling at each stage that examinations were really crucial until I got to the next one and the last set seemed of less importance.

    Comparing other systems is always interesting, and having not been to America myself it is useful to hear about your perceptions of the pressure in their system.

    I am slightly confused as to you referring to the pressurised grading as formative assessment. Is that because it is so regular? Dylan Wiliam, one of the key thinkers on formative assessment has said many times that grading is undermining of learning and that grading does not fit with formative assessment. Have you read his book with Paul Black, ‘Inside the black box’? (http://weaeducation.typepad.co.uk/files/blackbox-1.pdf)

    I’d be interested to hear how you think the ideas in that relate to what you saw in America, or indeed your own experience of schooling.

  3. jamesradburn says:

    I have seen parts of the book, but I have never read it fully which I will do this summer alongside all the other reading I’m doing for my modules next year.

    I was (incorrectly) using formative assessment more as a balloon term, and I really like the idea that ‘grading is undermining of learning.’ For me this post has been brewing up inside of me since receiving my result this year, and it made me reflect upon what actual purpose does grading gives me. For example, the connections and interactions I made throughout my research project on blogging has had a significant impact on me, as well as researching and completing the ICT module this year – but the grades do not represent this as the are vastly different.

    I will certainly write a follow up post once I have finished reading material for modules in my fourth year. But the interesting point in American Education currently, is their introduction of a Common Core Standards, essentially a National curriculum for all schools in the United States. Thus I would only imagine it will have a integral part to their assessment.

    Thanks for the comment

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