Testing and labelling students

Many’s a time when I have said at parents’ evening something along the lines of “Alex is a fantastic student, he always behaves brilliantly, he works hard, and has a great attitude, thank you. His test results reflect this hard work/ his test results will improve if he keeps up this good attitude.”

Saying that, now I am going to posit that when discussing results of  tests, this is not what I should be doing as a teacher, and further, it has no place in the role of teacher discourse about test results in general.

Back to parents’ evening and along similar lines, I have said things to the effect of “Zoe has a terrible attitude towards maths, does not try, and this is why she has not met her targets.”

Inherent to discussions about a student’s education is reference to results in tests. I think tests are a good thing. Indeed, I have argued that teaching without assessment is not actually teaching.

My two examples demonstrate me using the way a student presents themselves in class as a proxy for discussing their test results. Looking back at my schooling, comments made by teachers about me fell broadly into four similar categories, I think these reflect reasonably the positioning of many if not most comments by teachers about students in relation to their test results:

  1. Rufus has done well and is clever;
  2. Rufus has done well but has a bad attitude and does the bare minimum in class;
  3. Rufus has not done well, and this is because he has a bad attitude and does the bare minimum in class.
  4. Rufus has not done well and this is because he has no aptitude in this subject.

My argument is that when results of these tests are conflated with subjective opinions about students, in both their complimentary and pejorative forms, this is deleterious in the education process, and should have no place in it. I will represent my views of these insidious conflations in the following schema:

schema tests 1

My alternative solution to this is to be clear about the role of the teacher in communicating test results and their meaning. This can be summed up in 3 points:

  1. Based on this test, this is what the student does and doesn’t know;
  2. This is where their test score places them relative to a national average of their peers;
  3. This is how they can improve, so they perform better on the next test.

My new schema would look like this:

schema tests 2




One thought on “Testing and labelling students

  1. I do see what you’re saying. I think conflating effort and attainment, via the whole growth mindset thing, has caused this. My sense (particularly as a parent) is that assessment is in a right old mess at the moment and if I’m confused then I do wonder how parents who aren’t in the education field must feel.

    One of my big bug bears with the current focus on testing is that we end up testing the things that are easiest to test (i.e. do they know or can they remember x or y or not?) But often that misses the point, because attainment is not just about knowing stuff, it is about being able to do stuff too. Also, they might know plenty of stuff, but it’s just that they know stuff outside of what we test them on. Mostly, though, I’m just confused by the whole thing.

    Liked by 1 person

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