Assessment Opinion

Children Perform Best when Teachers are Not Focused on Scores

By Anthony Cody — August 25, 2010 2 min read
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Fresh research in England has revealed that “Children perform best in exams when teachers are not overly concerned about their test results.”

Pupils show greater motivation, are better behaved and are more likely to be independent and strategic thinkers when teachers are not obsessed by grades, the study by the Institute of Education found.

The English educational system, like ours, has become focused on test scores as evidence of learning, and there, as here, government policy places huge pressure on teachers and schools to boost those scores.

According to Chris Watkins, one of the researchers who wrote the report,

Ministers have placed teachers under so much pressure to ensure students perform well in national exams that they increasingly talk at their pupils, rather than talk to them and ask them open questions, he said. The latter leads students to deepen their learning and perform at their optimum.

The researchers cited several fascinating experiments that shed light on what is occurring.

In one study, some teachers were told to help pupils learn while others were told to concentrate on ensuring that their pupils performed well. The students under pressure to perform well obtained lower grades than those who were encouraged to learn.
Another study showed that when teachers focused on their students' learning, the students became more analytical than when the teachers concentrated on their pupils' exam results.
A further study, of 4,203 students, showed classroom behaviour improved when teachers focused on learning rather than grades.

John Holman, a leader in science education, expressed particular concern.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in science learning where relentless preparation for tests and exams drives out the important and engaging aspects, especially the practical work," he said. "All the evidence suggests that 'teaching to the test' results in superficial learning and a level of boredom that can turn pupils away from science.

This sounds very familiar to me. As a sixth grade science teacher, about eight years ago I saw an increase of students who would come to me having never done an experiment. They got most of their scientific ideas from Saturday morning cartoons, and had no idea how to test a hypothesis. What is worse, they did not want to. Some classes were clearly accustomed to rote work. I asked them what plants needed to live. Water, light, nutrients - they had some idea. Then I gave them seeds and soil, and asked them to think about how we might experiment with different conditions to see what would make the plants grow the best. Some of them came up with some good ideas. But a surprising number were utterly flummoxed. “I don’t get it.” “What am I sposed to write?” The very idea of an open-ended question was foreign to them. They were content to fill in the blanks on worksheets, or behave as stenographers recording what I wrote on the board, but when the responsibility for original thought was tossed their way, many of them did not know what to do with it.

Curiosity is an innate feature of our brain. But like anything, it will grow when it is exercised, and whither when it is neglected. Our obsession with test scores is killing curiosity.

In Oakland most of our schools are under tremendous pressure to raise their test scores in reading and math. Our school board recently enacted a policy directing elementary schools to teach science sixty to ninety minutes a week. We have a thorough support system in place to provide teachers with well-stocked kits, which we rotate three times a year. We are hoping this will result in more students exercising their curiosity by doing real science. There is a growing recognition that not every answer is on the test, and we need to give our students the chance to explore and investigate for themselves if we expect them to develop into a generation capable of thinking through the host of problems they will inherit. Our school board understands this. When will our state and federal policymakers catch on?

What do you think? Have you witnessed the negative effects of focusing on test results? Have you had success with a more open-ended approach?

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