Entrance exams, Basketball abilities, and more. In this episode, Andy and Adam question all things tests. What are we testing for? What dangers can arise from exams and re-takes? Plus, listen to why a 100% score on a test wasn’t much use to Adam as a teacher.
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Hi. I'm Andy Psarianos.
Hello. I'm Emily Guille-Marrett.
Hi. I'm Adam Gifford.
This is the School of School podcast.
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Okay. Welcome back everyone. So today we're going to talk about, when did students start getting retake tests? When did that happen? Certainly wasn't around when I was a kid. Adam, what do you think about this? Is this a good idea or what?
I think it has the potential to open a can of worms, because I think I can say the starting point is what's the point of the test in the first instance? If the test is to find out what you can do in half an hour, then that's cool. If the test is to find out what you can do, say, over time. So it's like, "You can just do this, you can have as long to do it as you want." Or does it even go further than that to say, "Listen, you tell me when you're ready to take the test, Andy. Okay? You just tell me when you are in the zone."
I'm being slightly facetious here. You're in the zone. You're feeling it. You're thinking, "Yeah, this is me. I'm on it now. I need to take the test now." I suppose out of those three things, it sort of comes back to, is the point to find out whether this person can do it, or is it whether they can do it under pressure, or whether they can do it better if they have more time to go away and think, "Oh, I didn't know this. Now I need to know this." So I don't know with retests because which best reflects the world we live in?
Because that's ultimately what we're trying to do. We're trying to say, "All right, education plays a big role in prep for the real world. Go out and get a job," all that sort of stuff.
I think the issues that varies just as much in the real world as it does in the classroom, maybe even more It is very contextual. If you're sending men to the moon, then every decision has to come when it's due and it has to be right, because if it's not, you might kill someone. So that's quite an extreme situation. But then in everyday businesses, it's like, "Well, we're not ready to make a decision. Okay. Let's make it next week." Because it flows a lot. So the reality is all those scenarios that we're talking about, they exist in similar ways in the real world as well. I think the question that you're asking is, which is why are we assessing the children anyway?
Tests are usually about assessment. They're not always, though. Sometimes they're about setting a deadline. There's that aspect of it as well. It's like, "Look, the class is ending. You're going to go into another. This is the end of the term." Or whatever it is? End of the year. So, by the end of the year, you need to have learned all this stuff because that's what you need to know to get into the next year's class. That governs when that test happens. So, why do you assess the kids? And I think if you don't know that going into the assessment, you'll never be able to answer that question.
But then if we talk about retakes, though, then does that not also stray into the area of, "I just want you to feel good about yourself."
Andy, you've had an absolute shocker. I'll tell you what? You have a retake because you must be feeling pretty bad at the moment. I'll tell you, have another crack.
Well, this is where you get into even the words that you use when you're doing assessment. Can you ever assess what somebody's ability is, for example, ability means that there's a limit, that you could only go so far. My ability as a basketball player is pretty low. I'm well in my 50s, I'm overweight, I'm not that tall. I ain't going to make it in professional basketball. So there's that concept of ability, no matter how much I try and how much I like it, there's a ceiling for me.
Can you even measure that in education? Because if a kid doesn't do well on a test, it may just be because they don't like you. "I don't like that teacher." So now what you're talking about is you're measuring attainment. So you're saying, "Well, I know they can do this because they showed me evidence of it, but it's not necessarily a measure of what they could do if they really wanted to."
A great example would be my own kids. A personal example, is I know that in secondary school and high school, they could have done way better than they did, they just weren't interested in doing very well. They weren't motivated. They didn't get very good grades, but that wasn't a measure of their ability. It was a measure of their attainment, which is a different concept. So then you have to get to that question.
If you actually want to know what somebody's ability is, giving them an opportunity to write the test again isn't necessarily a bad idea. Because maybe they had a rotten day or something happened, or they didn't have enough time to study or whatever it is, and they could be valid. I can understand the logic, but then there's the other side, the flip side of it, which is are we just heading towards this namby-pamby everybody gets a trophy kind of situation because we want everybody to feel good about themselves.
Just off the bat, I'm just going to jump in. I'm just thinking now, these retests and stuff that we're talking about, the second chance stuff. In the context of what we're talking about, it's been solely about people who have done badly, and then something came into my head.
There's a boy that I think about quite often, because I don't know that I gave him the best educational experience. I think I was guilty of... well, let me give you the context and then I'll tell you why I think that... I'm not sure, I think I could have helped him more. That's what I was going to say.
The context is that ever since he walked into school, we used to use the optional SATs. A lot of schools in the UK system, we talk about the SATs and there's optional ones. There's the ones that you have to report on, in the Year to middle school and they need. This boy got a 100% on his maths SATs.
Every single time. Lovely boy. Fantastic. And a great maths student, worked hard, all that sort of stuff. What I began to realise... now I taught him I think it was year four, so he's eight, nine, something like that. Another 100%. Isn't it wonderful he got another 100%? He lived with his mum. So just talking to his mum, "Isn't it great. You know, Alan's got another a 100%." But actually, I look at it now, the context of what we're talking about, he should've add a retest because that doesn't tell me anything.
He got 100%, but it doesn't tell me what he could have done. It doesn't tell me what the next steps are and all that, but it's celebrated. So these retests that we're talking about is like, "Oh, this is to make us feel better." But I don't know for all I know Alan could have been sitting there going, "Oh, this is rubbish, man. I can do way more than this. If you just give me half a chance, I can show you... give me some more and I'll show you what I can do. And yeah, I'll get a few wrong, but mate, I could destroy the rest." And that's what I'm talking about. As a teacher, I can then go to bed comfy and go, "Oh, he got a 100%. Aren't I doing a great job?" "Well, maybe not actually no Mr. Gifford, you might be doing a really crap job and he might not be learning much." That's the reality.
Well, yeah. So if you look at the science of this, this is actually a really interesting point that you're bringing up, because what you're talking about is calibrating the test. If it's possible for someone to get a 100, that's a bad test because, because it means that it's clipped. You don't know, just like I could give a test where all the kids get zero. Go and get a calculus test and give it to a bunch of three year olds. Good luck with that. They're all going to get zero. What does that test tell me? Absolutely nothing. So that's an extreme case, but it makes the point. The test has to be calibrated to the potential ability or attainment of that child needs to be within reach. And I had this conversation with Sebastian, not that long ago, a couple of days ago, he said, "Well, he's in university. So what's the point of having a course in university where the class average is 54%?"
This was a question he asked me. And I said, "Well, in actual fact, that's a really well calibrated course in the sense that someone's going to get 80 and that tells you something, just like, someone's going to get you 30 and that's going to tell you something." If the highest possible market anybody ever got was 80 and the lowest possible market anybody got was, let's say 20, that's a pretty well calibrated test. That means that you're going to know something about everyone coming out, but that's not the story that we tell ourselves. So in the U.S. for example, it's quite common that the expectation is, my child is going to get an A.
Everybody gets an A. Well, what does that tell you? It doesn't tell you anything, because everyone's got an A, but so why do you test? And I guess the other thing that you need to consider is how high stakes is it? So if it's an entrance exam or it's a SAT or a GCSC or something like that, where something that you have, GCSCE is you have to carry around. I got a C in my... whatever, GCSCE, that's a mark that defines you pretty much for a long time. You have to work for a long time before you can ignore any of your school marks in the UK, for example. Or entrance into university or whatever. So then it becomes really high stakes. So what happens if something is serious? What happens if your mom died two days before the GCSEs? Is it fair to give that person a chance to retake that GCSE? Because I don't think right now you can, can you?
I think there's certain appeals, but what we're talking about is that, in countries like the UK, what we have to accept is there's a lot of high stakes testing. And so the consequences of that, and the considerations around that are huge. That was one of the biggest shocks, when I moved over from New Zealand, I started teaching in a county, in the UK, that had selective education. So grammar schools that you did like, you didn't have to pay to go to them, but you took an entrance exam, and those people that came up with a particular score were then eligible for a place at the grammar school. Okay?
I met parents who were, I don't know, 40s, successful, well rounded, nice people. They still had huge issues about failing the entrance exam or not making the grade fail would be their word, not making the grade. And so the consequence of that was huge. And of course, that then spills over into the children. And that's where I think that if we then say, well, in certain circumstances, you can have another crack. So you can feel better about life, except for this one that has the potential to live with you, depending on how it's handled.
Wow. That's a fairly contradictory message to learn quite young.
Yeah. Okay. So let's flip that on, on the other side. So I remember having this discussion and seeing a presentation on it about high performing nations. I think it was Ban Har who was talking about this. Somebody was talking about it. Pretty sure it was Ban Har. High performing nations, almost all of them have some kind of high stakes exam at the end of... there has to be that you got to be able to jump over this wall. And if you can't, you don't get to go to university, and it's as simple as that. And those countries tend to do better than the ones that don't have that. Statistically, that's what the numbers show. So what does that tell us? There is something about that high stakes, you got to do well on the test on Thursday. You don't have an option that forces you to do better. And if you say, "Don't worry, you can do it again." Tends to give people the idea that it ain't that important.
Yeah. But a key component to that is the assessment itself. You touched on about making sure that there's scope to learn so we can see what people are doing and we know what the next steps are or where they might be having a problem or whatever else. But I think, and it might have been Ban Har saying this as well, actually that, when people talk about teaching to the test, well, if the test is really well written and we understand why we're all doing it, so I'll give a real life example, that's slightly different. But I think that possibly illustrates the point a little bit clearer, if the test is this, that my dad's going in for a heart replacement. Yeah. That's the test.
You want to make sure that if that's the test that this is what a successful heart replacement looks like, what we want is if we rewind from the surgeon doing it, that the surgeon knows that the end result of this test is going to be my dad having a heart replacement. So all those components are put in to try to support. And of course, they've got to come to the party. They've got to work hard. They've got to study. They've got to contribute as well. It's not just about having those right pieces in place. But I think if all of those things are in place, then the high stakes bit is okay, because it has to happen. There's high stakes all over the place. And I think maybe sometimes the high stakes or with some testing, we kind of don't necessarily know the purpose of it.
Or if we look at it and we say, "Well, we've got to test them on this. We're not quite sure why?" We'll just like, I don't know, the lead up to it is then unsatisfactory, or it doesn't do what we want it to do in order to perform well there, or it doesn't lead on to being able to perform well in other situations, then I think we've got a problem. And I think that, of course we need the high stakes in everything because we have to get used to those situations because that's real. That is that.
But I think where some people might get a bit disheartened with some assessments is, perhaps we don't see the path leading back from them being as valid or well rounded or as worthwhile sometimes. I don't know if I made that point clearly enough, but I just think in my understanding, and correct me if I'm wrong, because I know that you've spoken to Ban Har and his contemporaries in Singapore far more often, but actually changing the tests and making sure that those tests were the right ones to ensure that the path going to them would be taken properly, was a really important part in the sort of success of that structure.
Well, rating task asks is not, I mean, it's an art form in itself, and people who can write good exam questions are few and far between, and it's not clear, I think, to mere mortals, what makes a good exam question? Because it's something that you have to study a lot. So what a lot of these places strive to do and people who write exams is to come up with questions that you need to understand taxonomy as a principle. Of how do you rank, how do you decide which questions are worth five points and which questions are worth one point? So how do you rank your questions and how many of what type of questions do you need to put in the exam? And all that kind of stuff it's really all based on pretty serious science.
Yeah. And as an exam writer, part of your responsibility is to come up with at least a certain amount of questions that are going to be really unfamiliar to children. So it's like, what's in the curriculum? Because it needs to be calibrated. So, you know what's in the curriculum, you know what most schools are teaching and how they're teaching. So what's something that most children are likely to never have run into so that you can pick out those who can reason beyond the expectation. So there's an expectation, everyone can reason, but some kids can take knowledge that seems completely unrelated. And you want to highlight those kids. That's important. Because you know, those are good candidates for certain types of programmes or university or whatever. So there's a whole science behind that. I don't even know if I'm answering you. I don't even remember what your question was at, but I'm on a rampage here, but-
So those nations that do really well and have those super high stakes exams, most of them take that exam writing very seriously. I know for example, we were talking about Singapore, I know that Singapore yanked. So Cambridge assessment used to write their end of high school exams and they decided they weren't rigorous enough. And I don't know if I got to... if your Cambridge assessment don't sue us, maybe I got it wrong. But it's like they decided that they were going to write it themselves because they needed to control the rigour of that kind of stuff. So it's serious business, and of course we know that Singapore does really well.
Well may maybe the key then is not so much about whether there's high stakes testing and those sorts of things. Maybe it's just being very clear to the children of any age, what they're taking part in. So there's that really clear difference between what you are doing as high stakes and what you're doing is something that you can have a few cracks at. And I know there's a top conversation off air. Robin, we were talking. But I think one of the things that probably maybe suggesting is when something's purported to be high stakes, but you can have another crack at it. And I think that that's probably leading to trouble because if people feel that's the case, that there's always that slight opportunity, I might have another go at it. I mean, there's always going to be cases, the likes of which Andy said, compassionate grounds for possibly considering something different.
But I just think there has to be that really, really clear difference between... but is understood by the children as to this is the type of thing that what we're trying to do is find out in your time or how you're doing it. This one here, you get one shot and it's been written in this way because of... and I don't know, maybe those conversations aren't had, but perhaps where professionals start to make decisions around that, that are blur in the lines and not having that conversation. Maybe that's not doing the people that are sitting the tests any favours. Make it clear if it's high stakes. Don't leave my dad on the table thinking, "Oh, is this a surgeon? Think I'm going to have a second crack." No, no, no, no, no. Anyway, that's it.
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