There was an interesting article by Marina Goetze, the head of the special education department at the Institute of Education Sciences, posted on social media on March 13, in which she explained how her work as a remedial teacher had become untenable because of the number of children who were being referred to her for learning difficulties at ever younger ages.
The article interested me because I had also just learnt from one of my graduate students who works in a variety of foundation-phase classrooms in the Western Cape that children in grades one to three are being summatively tested and then “diagnosed” (if they were not as efficient or speedy as their classmates) as needing to be referred for “additional assistance” — either remedial assistance or a full educational psychology assessment.
There is a distinction between summative testing, which tests a child’s capacity to reproduce content, and formative assessment, which involves working with a child to accomplish problem-solving in an environment where the child is assisted.
With summative testing happening with these very young children, it is no wonder that Goetze is finding it hard to keep up with the referrals. Given the appalling results that South African children achieved on the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study tests, in which 78% of grade four children were deemed unable to read for meaning, it makes sense that the educational system is in a state of panic.
Perhaps this can explain why we are introducing testing at the foundation phase so that we can “diagnose” “deficit” at younger grades, enabling children to perform better on international benchmarking tests in the future, once they have sought remedial intervention.
I cannot say this is the rationale, but it might make sense to some that this is necessary. However, more testing, especially at younger grades, can do nothing to have an effect on learning. We need to investigate what we know about testing and its effect on learning, and what we know about child development.
Testing for what?
Can summative testing help a child to learn? No. Learning refers to a developmental process, in which a child moves from lacking a certain concept to acquiring it. Very specifically, learning requires structured teaching that can enable the child to acquire the concept.
A summative test measures what has been acquired by the child after a period of teaching. It does not include any instances of when teaching can assist the child during the testing process.
Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky convincingly argued that this type of testing assesses only what a child already knows and tells us nothing about a child’s potential to learn.
To assess a child’s potential, according to Vygotsky, a more competent other — the teacher — must assist the child in a problem-solving situation. This will enable the child to grasp the school-based concept being taught, rather than to reproduce something for a paper-and-pencil test.
Summative testing does not establish the child’s potential to learn. A summative test therefore cannot be diagnostic because it cannot tell us what the child’s conceptual strengths are, nor can it adequately diagnose conceptual weaknesses.
At the very best, a summative test is capable of testing only a small subset of skills and not conceptual attainment in any real sense. It is better thought of as an assessment of how much of the curriculum has been covered and can be accurately reproduced, rather than how much conceptual understanding a child has of the curriculum.
To test for conceptual understanding, one needs to test in a formative fashion, giving the child feedback throughout a continuous testing process.
It is this kind of assessment that can appropriately diagnose conceptual understanding and indicate where the child’s strengths and weaknesses lie, and it is this kind of testing we should be doing if we want to assist children in their learning.
Research also shows that teachers will teach for the test to ensure they receive no sanctions if their children fail, detracting from time devoted to conceptual development.
How do children learn?
Children in grade one are between six and seven years of age. More than 60 years of developmental research has shown that these children learn best through play and interacting with concrete objects.
In grades two and three, children are able to learn in a more structured manner but still require concrete instantiations of problems to develop conceptually. In the lower grades, learning depends on the child being able to manipulate what it is they are learning in a concrete way.
A paper-and-pencil test is abstract and doesn’t allow a child to manipulate objects to arrive at a solution to a problem. Therefore, it is developmentally an inappropriate measure of conceptual attainment. Furthermore, development is fluid.
A five-year-old might read fluently whereas a seven-year-old stumbles over a basic reader. This is not evidence that the seven-year-old is “deficient” cognitively but, rather, evidence of the fluidity of development. Given the time to develop, with appropriate instruction the seven-year-old will come to read fluently.
Children come from different cultural and historical backgrounds. Some have parents who read to them daily and some have parents who never read to them. This will affect how quickly a child develops the academic skills that school requires.
The education system is in crisis; few would argue with that. But no amount of summative testing in the foundation phase is going to fix the system.
Joanne Hardman is associate professor in the school of education at the University of Cape Town