People expect the education system to prepare students to enter an increasingly competitive workforce where upskilling and performance reviews are the order of the day. The education system of Australia, England, and other Western countries is consequently increasingly demanding in terms of workload and formal assessments. British students are tested more than their counterparts in other countries. In 2014 the British government planned to introduce formal testing of students soon after they begin kindergarten.

Australia has followed suit. A government-appointed panel recommends that Year One children complete new spelling and maths tests in addition to NAPLAN testing which students complete from Year Three onwards. But is early and frequent testing of young primary pupils necessary, or even feasible? Evidence suggests that this trend hinders rather than helps the overall personal development and the academic success of students.

Testing Young Children is Problematic: Here’s Why

Governments affirm that early testing is the best way to find out how much children know when they start school so that their progress can be tracked and assessed later on. These baseline tests also indicate whether schools are meeting specific learning targets.

However, teachers and experts argue that testing children under the age of 10 is problematic for five important reasons:

  • Many education experts feel they don’t have enough knowledge to devise tests for young children. Appropriate testing (if it can be done at all), will take years to develop. Yet it was proposed in 2016.
  • Every child learns in different ways, so developing a standardised test that is fair to all is challenging, not to say impossible. Young children can be volatile and changeable. Their test results may depend on their mood rather than their ability.
  •  The proposed tests can only assess a narrow range of skills, and as such don’t offer a complete picture of the breadth and depth of a child’s achievements or qualities. Qualities judged essential for success in the wider world such as self-confidence, empathy, or personal independence can’t be tested.
  • Proponents of testing assume that a student’s performance at a particular age can be meaningfully compared and measured with their performance at a later stage. This isn’t a reasonable assumption since a person’s performance depends on a range of uncontrollable factors.
  • Early and frequent testing can cause anxiety and other health issues as students struggle to meet ever higher expectations, competing against classmates of different ages with different levels of maturity.

Advocates of the Let Kids Be Kids campaign in England report that six-year-olds are becoming increasingly stressed and are less involved in school activities because of testing Teachers opine that the new British tests set children up to fail. In England, parents have protested the measures by taking kids out of school and Australian parents have voiced concerns about NAPLAN tests for Year Three Pupils.

Other Ways to Monitor Learning Progress

The Australian Education Union argues that the proposed spelling and maths tests for Year One students are unnecessary as schools already assess students informally and can identify learning gaps. Union president Correna Haythorpe affirms that resources to support struggling learners would be more beneficial to children than such tests. Both teachers and experts suggest that teachers can best monitor student progress by observation, and working closely with them in the first few months of school. Assessing portfolios of classwork and performance tasks such as giving a speech is a more systematic and low-key way to get a complete picture of a student’s abilities than formally testing them.

More Free Play Saves the Day!

Research  indicates that the common practice of starting school at age four or five in non-European Western countries is detrimental to a child’s academic development and overall personal growth. Indeed children who start formal schooling at age 6 or 7 often achieve higher marks than their counterparts who start earlier. Researchers suggest that exposure to free play rather than structured, formalised learning generally results in superior learning abilities and motivation. Free play with blocks and models allows children to develop their creativity and problem-solving abilities in ways that formal testing and learning can’t match. Free play also helps children to become aware of, and to develop and regulate their intellectual and emotional capacities. Standardised testing during early childhood means less free play time, when free play is essential to the happy and healthy development of young students.

Academic testing is not a one-size fits-all recipe for academic success. The statistics show that in many cases, formal education and testing is detrimental to young learners. We need to allow children to learn through informal, unstructured play and hands-on inquiry as there will be plenty of testing times ahead.

About the Author

PhD in European Languages and Cultures (specialising in Literary Translation) Department of International Studies Macquarie University