The Problems with Primary School Testing

Boy Reading

‘Boy Reading – Ned Anshutz’ by Thomas Pollock Anshutz (1851-1912)

From having been a strong advocate of the general reading tests which have been a part of the ‘No Child Left Behind’ federal policy, Hirsch has now become an opponent. In his latest book, Why Knowledge Matters, he explains why he has changed his view. Although the general reading tests are valid tests of reading ability, they are what he calls ‘consequentially invalid’. However accurately they may test reading, they have harmful educational consequences.

General reading tests are educationally harmful, argues Hirsch, because they promote the idea that there is such a thing as a general reading skill, when in fact, reading ability is based primarily on knowledge of the domain about which one is reading. Because general reading tests support the fallacious but widespread belief in general skills, their use as a national measure of achievement on which schools and teachers are judged leads to ever more lessons in these general skills. Pupils do ever more practice of comprehension strategies, and ever less time is spent learning specific subject knowledge.

It’s easy to sympathise with teachers and schools that adopt the strategy of training in comprehension skills, rather than take the risk of giving a good general education. Good general knowledge is the best way to improve reading comprehension, but the fact is that teachers and pupils are presented with high stakes tests for which there can be no specific preparation, and this fills them with anxiety. Naturally enough, they want to do something specific that will help their pupils perform better in the tests. And the only specific thing they can do is practise comprehension strategies. All other preparation is indirect, and we cannot blame teachers and schools who are placed under such pressure from being doubtful about indirect, incremental, long-term methods when they are facing an imminent high stakes test.

So the main practical, observable effect across the American education system of holding schools to account through general reading tests has been a further impoverishment of the curriculum, as pupils waste ever more time working on mythical general skills. Hirsch recognises that, politically, there is no possibility in the USA of their being national tests which focus on specific knowledge, so he suggests that school districts remedy the deleterious effects of national testing by introducing their own local system of tests which are focused on subject specific domains rather than general reading ability.

The British government should take heed of the damaging effects of making a general reading test the measure of school attainment. These damaging effects are a matter of historical record in the USA. If the Department for Education wishes to promote a richer programme of subject specific education in primary schools, they need to change the way primary schools are held accountable. They need to scrap general reading tests at key stage two and replace them with specific tests of pupils’ knowledge about literature, history, geography, science, art and music. And while they’re reforming key stage two tests, they should scrap the English Language GCSE, which is also an unfair and educationally unhelpful assessment.

Of course, there will continue to be courageous and intelligent school leaders and teachers who build a rich curriculum of subject specific knowledge, and eschew the false promise of training in mythical general skills. But at the moment, our assessment system, especially at primary level, is hindering rather than helping this movement for educational reform.

Further reading:

General Reading Tests Are Always Unfair


4 thoughts on “The Problems with Primary School Testing

  1. I agree totally with this, but will add that another massive factor is that children simply do not read enough these days and many, on approach to year 6, are not fluent readers in any way shape or form. You can’t begin to answer a comprehension question if you’re stumbling and bumbling through basic vocabulary. I’ve heard so many primary teachers say the same thing: that they’re doing lots and lots of comprehension ‘lessons’, yet children still can’t answer comprehension questions properly under test conditions. If I had any sway or power, I would try to solve this problem thus:

    1. Mandate half an hour a day of silent reading for at least the junior classes, extending the school day if necessary and ensuring the physical environment is conducive to individual thought and focus (a non-cluttered room containing booths if necessary, maybe some children even need sound-reducing ear muffs too).
    2. Have simple fluency tests for the lower years, with real reporting to parents, letting them know what number actually constitutes ‘fluency’ and being up front with the expectation that children should be fluent, free readers by the start of junior school.
    3. Begin each daily English lesson with a big chunk of text which is at a slightly higher level than the children normally read and closely aligned to the current teaching sequence foci (a good story if creating stories, an information-infused report if doing report writing). I would also have the children follow with a simple reading strip to place under each line while the teacher reads out loud (a black strip is easy to see for the teacher, ensuring children are actually following), holding a highlighter too so that they may highlight each and every new word, phrase and idiom they encounter in order to ask good questions once the text has been read by the teacher.

    Of course, it goes without saying that you need a good foundation of phonics! The small tweaks above, for me, are all about taking the long view and beginning that process of being comprehension question ready well before the mad panic of year 6!


  2. I am currently teaching year 6. I agree with what you write: I believe a comprehension test is easier if one has some knowledge on the subject matter. But I will disagree on one matter: I am in favour of a reading test. The existence of the reading test is an indicator as to how important it is that we teach children to read well and read widely. A good teacher will understand that wide knowledge is the key to being able to read and understand a wide variety of texts, and will teach accordingly.


Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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