The interplay between teaching and testing

In the field of education, it is not uncommon to hear stories from colleagues who have decided to start learning an instrument or to begin studying a new language. Teachers share a love of learning, and we understand the need for people to become lifelong learners. Having said that, it would be a mistake to suggest that this means that teachers find learning ‘easy’. On the contrary; teachers will often seek out those areas in which they are going to be challenged.

In education there is an oft-quoted cliché that warns us to ‘test what is taught, don’t teach what will be tested’. The introduction of regular testing (such as NAPLAN) has challenged schools to think carefully about curriculum design. Since 2000 the OECD has published Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) data, a global survey of students at 15 years of age. Over time the survey has expanded to include countries from all over the world, and the tools that are used have made increasingly sophisticated analysis possible.

The leader of PISA is Professor Andreas Schleicher. During my own studies I was fortunate enough to be able to spend time speaking to him about the ways in which data can be used at a systemic level in order to inform the policy making process. What I didn’t anticipate was that my conversation with him would completely alter the ways in which I use data to inform decision making for individual students.

The broadest possible outcome from the PISA survey is a ‘rank’, an international league table that measures one country’s education system against another. During the period from 2000 to 2010 one of the most improved systems (by this ranking) was Poland. Professor Schleicher challenged me to explain why. I’m sure I responded with something that was unnecessarily complicated, because the simplicity of his response has resonated with me ever since: It’s because they started teaching 14-year-old students how to respond to PISA-like tasks.

One of the characteristics of a great leader is that they have a clear vision. One of the characteristics of a great teacher is that they know the outcome towards which they are working. In recent years there has been a lot of criticism of the ways in which ‘measurement’ and ‘assessment’ are used in schools, but perhaps that has more to do with the way in which some of these tasks have been designed. Professor Schleicher certainly wasn’t arguing that the Polish education system had improved; his argument was far simpler – the OECD tests their ability to respond to certain types of tasks. If they want to achieve better results, then one strategy is to include those tasks in the curriculum. In other words, the Polish government was willing to abandon existing structures in order to ‘teach what would be tested’. The outcome (improved standing in the PISA rankings) was almost guaranteed, but this doesn’t mean that the manner in which it happened was positive for secondary school students in Poland.

I think about this when I teach my own classes. What skill do I want the students to be able to demonstrate? How can I ‘chunk’ that into manageable parts so that they can progress through the learning journey? How will I measure their progress? And if a measure suggests that they have not mastered a particular skill, what interventions will be necessary to overcome the deficit?

Data helps governments to make decisions about policies, and data helps teachers to provided targeted learning support for individual students. It certainly isn’t the only skill that teachers need to possess, but in combination with strong content knowledge, effective curriculum design and appropriate assessment tasks it can help to ensure that the work we do achieves the outcomes that we desire.

Dr Bryan Wood