DCU/INTO study looks at the use of standardised tests in primary schools

An in-depth study on the use of standardised tests in Mathematics and English Reading in Irish primary schools has been carried out at Dublin City University.

Led by the Centre for Assessment Research, Policy and Practice in Education (CARPE) at DCU and the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO), it is the first large scale investigation of Irish primary teachers’ use of, beliefs about and attitudes to the tests, with the views of 1564 respondents recorded.

The research suggests that while standardised tests bring value over and above other assessments and ultimately provide information which is essential in broadening the focus of decision-making about teaching and learning within classrooms and across schools, unintended negative consequences can also result from their use.

Key findings:

  • One of the notable findings from the quantitative data in this survey was the diversity of opinion expressed about different aspects of standardised testing.
  • Some felt the tests were a valid way of measuring achievement in maths and English reading, while others did not.
  • The appropriateness and value of standardised testing in DEIS contexts and for decision-making about pupils with special needs or EAL was called into question by some teachers.
  • Many expressed very strong views on the form and content of current tests as well as on how and when they were administered, and the results communicated.
  • Some felt that questionable test preparation and administration practices as well as undue anxiety and pressure to perform were negative consequences of standardised testing.
  • Many agreed that standardised test results should be reported to parents, but others expressed uncertainty about whether or not parents understood the meaning of test scores.
  • The need for professional development across a range of topics pertinent to standardised testing was highlighted.

Commenting on the findings, Professor Michael O’Leary, Director of the Centre for Assessment Research Policy and Practice (CARPE) at the Institute of Education, DCU, said:

“It’s now been twelve years since the introduction of mandatory testing in primary schools in 2007. Data from this study show clearly that standardised testing has an increased status in the primary system and many teachers have real concerns about its impact. The findings
give educators and policy makers much food for thought.”

INTO Director of Education and Research, Dr Deirbhile Nic Craith also welcomed the report and stated that “This report finds that standardised testing is a useful tool for assessment and learning. It identifies the challenges experienced by teachers in respect of current tests, the administration of tests and the presentation and interpretation of results. Put simply, the report highlights the need for clarity on policy and practice when it comes to assessment and standardised testing in primary schools”.

The research makes a number of policy recommendations, some of which include: Changing the timing of the testing from summer to the autumn to alleviate the pressure felt by teachers and pupils.

  • The need to update standardised tests more regularly.
  • Reporting of standardised test as individual numbers on report cards should be discontinued. Instead test scores should be communicated in writing as part of a narrative text that describes pupil performance, interprets it in light of other assessments and acknowledges the imprecise nature of all standardised test scores.
  • A programme of professional development focused on improving teachers’ assessment literacy more generally and with standardised testing as one linked component should be devised and made accessible to all teachers.
  • The need for rigorous validity studies of all standardised tests in use in Irish primary schools to ensure that the tests remain relevant and their impact on teaching and learning understood. (pdf)

Read the report in full ‘Standardised Testing in English Reading and Mathematics in the Irish Primary School – A Survey of Irish Primary Teachers (pdf)‘.