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Assessment week is upon us again, and I found myself getting uncharacteristically stressed with the whole situation. I was not stressed at the fact that my year 5 children were unable to answer the simplest questions on the year 3 papers but at the papers themselves. The test is reading a set of instructions about making a treasure map and then answering questions about it.

As I handed out the reading paper I began to wonder just how many of my children knew anything what so ever about pirates or treasure maps. For that matter I wondered how many of my children had ever used a set of instructions. As I wandered around the room I could clearly hear my hard-working and dedicated pupils mumbling their way through the text, sounding out words, looking for picture clues and reading the res of the sentence just like we have taught them but as they began finishing the text and starting the questions the room fell more and more silent. Children stared blankly at answer books and pencils lay still on the desk.

“Ah!” says the teacher, these children can decode, but not comprehend. “This is the crux of the matter”  I disagree. Strongly. I picked up a spare paper and read through it, perplexed by why my children couldn’t answer ‘what is the title of this reading booklet?’ Nothing immediately came to my attention until I accidentally misread a word and went back when I realised that what I thought I had read didn’t make sense. I noticed how some of the words in the questions were actually quite long and irregular. I noticed the frequency of specialist language that was not being used specifically to test if the child knew the meaning of a particular word. It dawned on me that the questions were noticeably more challenging to read than the booklet itself. The conclusion is inevitably that children are not given a fair chance at comprehending the text at all, rather their ability to read and understand the questions.

A quick look through the other classes papers revealed similar outcomes. I have often expressed my surprise when a child, who has read well to me in class and answered comprehension questions well has done so badly on a test. I also couldn’t help but notice how biased the test subjects were.

One paper required the children to write about a trip to the antarctic. Another was a trip to the seaside, my one was about treasure maps and treasure hunts. We are asking a group of inner city children from innumerable cultural and economic backgrounds, to relate to the English seaside and the antarctic. As I thought about this I remembered a number of experiences with a class I taught a few years ago.

I took this class on a trip early in the year and we drove over Waterloo bridge in central London, not more than 3 miles from the school and the homes of most of the pupils. I remember the children getting hugely excited about crossing the Thames and seeing the wheel. Many of them insisted that they had never seen the wheel in real life, and didn’t know that there was a river so close to their house. These children were 9 and 10 years old and had clearly not traveled outside of their immediate surroundings. These tests are completely foreign and to our pupils and they simply are unable to relate to them. They don’t have the vocabulary like ‘glaciers’ or ‘swashbuckling’ that the mark scheme wants to see. These tests are completely unfit for purpose.

I would love it if my children wanted to learn about pirates. I would think that it would be an excellent idea to give them a set of instructions to make a treasure map and for them to actually make the treasure map. I would love to make a judgment about their comprehension based on the map that they produced. I would love to see an embedded process whereby the children were learning in context, driven by their own interest and assessed through what they were doing.

I return to a question that I asked on an earlier post. What do we want from our education system? If we want functional learners, with initiative, imagination, problem solving skills and ambition then we must immerse them in  a world that measures success by functionality, innovation, imagination, solved problems, and entrepreneurialism not in a world that measures success by their ability to relate to things that they have no experience of.

I remember when I was a child, my Dad bought me a set of Mecchano. I was interested in it for a short while, and I vividly remember him teaching my how to use the instruction manual to build the models. I also remember being left alone and struggling to build this race car. I remember miscounting the holes, selecting the wrong size piece and having to undo and then rebuild numerous elements of the project over several hours. If this had been a written test I would have lost marks when I was asked which number hole the screw went through or what size piece was required here. I may have failed to get the level expected of me. However, I did build that race car and it worked – eventually. You decide, did I successfully read the instructions or not?

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