Testing tests, evaluating examinations

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As we come to the testing time of the year I want to share some reflections on various aspects of assessment.

At Preshil, we hold human agency as a fundamental value. When students and families join our community we invite a conversation around individual purposes and views of education. Students, in consultation with parents and teachers, have the right to define what they want to achieve, the level to which they aspire and the ways they choose to get there. Accordingly, they are supported and held accountable to their own definitions of success. This is not some namby-pamby, ‘everyone-gets-a-medal’ snowflake-ism: anyone who thinks this approach produces fragile learners is grossly ignorant of the intellectual rigours of such learning environments as communities of inquiry, inquiry-based learning and their innovating outcomes.

In many schools, students are expected to conform to school-imposed understandings of ‘achievement’, ‘excellence’ and ‘outcomes’. Schools that offer dual pathways (VCE and IB Diploma) often deny students the ability to choose. Some schools even limit student choice of subjects or co-curricular activities, as they believe these students will not ‘measure up’. The view is that students might bring the reputation of the school into disrepute through their ‘underperformance’, and the only voice permitted to define what ‘underperformance’ might look like is that of the school.

This philosophical difference plays out in significant ways as we consider this week’s ‘Mock Exams’ for our Year 12s. As a school, we often reflect on the way tests and examinations are used and performed throughout a student’s experience from Year 7 to 12.

A study I read recently, Rethinking the Use of Tests: A Meta-Analysis of Practice Testing (Adesope, Trevisan & Sundararajan, 2017), found that schools can “use test results for low-stakes formative assessments and provide students with feedback on their strengths and weaknesses, as well as helping teachers improve their instruction.” Schools and families play a significant role in influencing the degree to which students perceive tests as reflections of their own self-worth. At Preshil our intention is to encourage students to see tests as useful measures of their progress in a learning journey, rather than a mechanism for defining them as people.

In healthy schools, testing will be a mechanism for improving learning.

This is largely due to ‘the testing effect’, a psychological phenomenon resulting in increased retention of content and increased learning. It is also worth noting that the object of that learning is important, as retention of content implies the development of knowledge, rather than understanding. This means that testing does not stand alone as a teaching tool, but is useful to provide a platform for knowledge through which skills and understandings are developed. This is particularly important for subjects that have transferable knowledge, such as terminologies, jargon and subject-specific language. The benefits of repeated testing for learning an additional language, for example, are widely known.

‘Teaching to the test’ is not aligned with the Preshil teaching ethos, and should be more broadly disregarded by educators, as it emphasises extrinsic motivations for learning and has clear links to fostering learned helplessness in our children. Using tests as tools to teach, however, affirms student effort, promotes intellectual rigour and upholds human agency.

Hopefully, all our students can approach whatever end-of-year tests and exams they have with a deep confidence that allows them to perform to the best of their ability, secure in the knowledge that no exam result determines their worth as a person.

Dan Symons

Head of Campus, Blackhall Kalimna

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