Constantly weighing the pig will not make it grow: do teachers teach assessment tests or the curriculum?
Le Cordeur, Michael
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For a number of years now, South Africa, like many other countries, has been debating a major paradigm shift in education, a shift from learning and teaching, which focused primarily on content to learning and teaching focused on outcomes. One of the most dramatic trends in education over the last decade has been the shift towards the use of assessment-based criteria, as opposed to assessment tests based on marks, scores and data. However, as Jordaan (2010) quite rightly points out, assessment is an integral part of teaching and learning, not just a means of monitoring or auditing learners’ performance. Assessment is much more than just measuring learning outcomes: it is an instrument to improve teaching, the curriculum and conditions for learners’ learning. The question is why the negativity about testing if assessment is associated with effective teaching. Since South Africa became a democratic country, it has been struggling with low levels of literacy. Poor performance of South African learners in basic literacy in national and international tests has moved the Department of Basic Education (DoBE) since 2010 to place more emphasis on systemic tests as a way of securing an improvement in learner performance. However, many researchers have blamed the emphasis placed on standardised tests for the poor state of our education system. More and more voices are going up for improved teacher development and more support to teachers and learners. In this article, I shall argue that too much emphasis is placed on standardized tests, and not much is being done to develop teachers in providing a balanced teaching and learning experience to learners. I shall indicate that the continual testing of learners’ performance in literacy through systemic and standardised tests has not led to improved reading ability, but has in fact contributed to a decline in learners’ creativity, innovation and independent thinking, and the skills needed to leapfrog this country into the 21st century. These tests emphasised the skills involved in taking multiple-choice tests over those of researching, analysing, experimenting and writing, the tools that students will more likely need to be great thinkers, excellent university students and valued employees. I will argue that today’s children spend too much time preparing for tests and this has come at the expense of a broader education in other subjects. Drilling pupils to pass tests does not help their longer-term learning and results in a narrower curriculum, poorer standards of teaching and lower quality of education. The point I want to make is that teachers have learnt very fast how to coach for the tests, which led to inflated results. Thus, while test scores have risen, educational standards might actually have declined. Therefore, rather than adding new measurements of progress, schools need to move away from data and towards a more holistic approach to assessing educational quality. I shall also argue that we must assess students’ work throughout the year by means of portfolios, rather than by means of a narrow snapshot of learning measured on one test day. As Jordaan (2010) puts it, we need to ensure that learning is not simply assessment-driven. Students are highly intelligent people; if we confront them with a game where learning is linked to a rigid and monotonous diet of assessment, they will learn according to the rules of that game. To improve their learning, we need to improve our game.