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A Broken System Change Needed

Systematic review confirms that assessment damages motivation to learn

University of London’s Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Co-ordinating Centre carried out a ‘systematic review of the impact of summative assessment and tests on students’ motivation for learning’. It found that a range of damaging outcomes were connected to high stakes testing.

External tests have a constricting effect on the curriculum, resulting in an emphasis on subjects tested at the expense of creativity and personal and social development. High-stakes tests often result in a great deal of time being spent on practice tests, the valuing of test performance and undervaluing of other student achievements.

The review found evidence that following the introduction of the National Curriculum Tests self-esteem of low achieving pupils was lower than that of higher-achieving pupils. Before the tests were introduced there had been no correlation between self-esteem and achievement.

The effect of the tests was not, as advocates would have it, increased effort. Nor did familiarity with being tested lead to positive outcomes. Instead older students felt increased levels of anxiety, resentment, cynicism and mistrust of standardised achievement tests. Older students were likely to minimise effort and guess at answers or answer randomly.

Assessment is doubly bad for lower-achieving students. Being labelled as a failure negatively impacts their feelings about their ability to learn, and also damages their self-esteem which in turn reduces the likelihood of future success.

High achievers who are confident of success are good at tests, employ effective test taking strategies and have more positive self-perceptions than low achievers. Low achievers instead are overwhelmed by being assessed and demotivated by being found wanting. This in turn increases the gap between low- and high-achieving students, becoming self-fulfilling.

Increased focus on assessment and results increases the difference between high and low achieving students. Schools that were focussed on test outcomes had greater negative outcomes for students than those who had a culture which was supportive of a wider range of qualities.

Generally, feedback which is about the task (as opposed to performance of it) led to increased interest and effort whereas feedback about how well (or not) someone performed did not. Learners being able to manage their own learning appears to stimulate students’ interest and their focus on intrinsic features of their work. Students given choice and control over their learning and encouragement to evaluate their own work valued the learning, whether or not it was correct.

High stakes tests were found to change teachers’ performance. They tended to move towards a more traditional teaching style focussed on transmission of facts, disadvantaging students who favoured a more active and creative learning experience.

Tests also changed the curriculum, narrowing it. Focus is placed on subjects to be measured, at the expense of creativity and personal development. Tests mean more time practising tests and less appreciation of student qualities that fall outside the tests.

Read in full: Harlen W, Deakin Crick R (2002). A systematic review of the impact of summative assessment and tests on students’ motivation for learning (EPPI-Centre Review, version 1.1*). In: Research Evidence in Education Library. Issue 1. London: EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education.

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