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Excessive testing undermines teaching, learning in schools

President William Ruto during the start of KCPE and KEPSEA exams at Kikuyu Township Primary School, Kiambu County on October 30, 2023. [PCS, Standard]

Eight years ago, the Kenya National Examinations Council (Knec) released a report questioning the educational value of the frequency of assessments or examinations that learners in basic education institutions undertake. The report was conducted under the auspices of the National Assessment System for Monitoring Learner Achievement (NASMLA).

In the report entitled, Monitoring Learner Achievement at Class 3 in Literacy and Numeracy in Kenya, Knec noted: “Pupils who were subjected to frequent testing performed worse than those who were not tested frequently, putting the diagnostic value of the tests given to question.”

Arising from this, Knec recommended: “It is necessary for teachers to be cautious about the number of tests subjected to pupils in a term, bearing in mind that testing should be geared towards assessing the learners’ acquisition of competencies stipulated in the curriculum within a specific period.”

There is something in education called time on task. Time on task is an educational jargon that refers to the total time available for teaching and learning. This time must be planned for and used effectively to accomplish the teaching and learning task. Allocated time at school is mainly for teaching, learning and assessment. The school calendar provides for an appropriate ratio of time among these three to ensure desired educational outcomes.

The frequency of testing that learners are subjected to has serious implications on education policy, standards and curricula allocated for effective teaching and learning.

Frequent testing of learners implies that the time set aside for instructional time—teaching and learning—is shortened. To make up for lost time, the teachers rush, stagger or gloss over the teaching of key ideas or concepts.

What happens is that students proceed to the next set of ideas, grade or class with growing gaps in knowledge, skills and attitudes in the curriculum. Education Cabinet Secretary has assigned time each day of the week for Preps—own study by students. It is not unusual for some school authorities to use this time to administer assessments, which come too close to each other that students sit for them outside the teaching hours.

Clearly, students are not properly equipped or prepared for subsequent assessments within the term or in the school calendar. When they finally face the national examinations to determine placement, grading and certification, they are not even fully prepared. They end up performing far below their potential because they were not properly socialised into the body of knowledge, skills and other competencies the syllabus has. Indisputably, the organisation of academic programmes with marginal teaching and learning has damaging effects on learner morale.

The 2016 NASMLA notes in part: “…frequent testing may become tedious and decrease the pupils’ interest in learning. This may ultimately affect acquisition of desired competencies as teachers teach to the test and learners read to the test, hence learning does not last for a long time.” Knec is not the only government organ that has expressed concern at the way some teachers have allowed assessments to pervade the atmosphere of schools.

The Task Force on Students Indiscipline and Unrest in Secondary Schools observed that there was an imbalance in teaching, learning and assessment in schools it visited, saying: “The number of tests as part of the continuous assessment are excessive and cause stress to students, and unnecessary expenditure on parents.” The task force recommended there be a professional balance in learning and testing, with the aim of curtailing unprofessional examination of students. The Claire Omollo report of 2016 on unrest in secondary schools also noted a similar tendency in regard to assessment, in the school environment.

The USA faces a similar problem. In a report, 'Testing More, Teaching Less, What America’s Obsession with Student Testing Costs in Money and Lost Instructional Time' in 2013, the President of American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten noted that the time for students to take tests and prepare for tests is not a budgetary cost, but it is paid for through the reduction of instructional time in the exact amount by which testing time increases.

The UK school system has not been spared either. In a report on the findings research into the delivery of primary and secondary curriculum in in 2017, the Chief Inspector of the Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills, Amanda Spielman, said that primary school parents complained that preparing for tests was cutting into their child’s learning time. 

“Around half of the parents who responded to our questionnaire believed that test preparation had reduced the teaching time available for the other foundation subjects or for reading for pleasure," she said. She emphatically says that the regular taking of test papers does little to increase a child’s ability to comprehend.

Suffice it to say that while assessments have a critical educational value, too much testing undermines the teaching and learning that ultimately impacts the competences that learners require for the next level of educational tier and for career and advanced education and training.

Assessment makes sense when it comes after students have gone through a learning experience that adds new information, knowledge and acquires skills. It becomes harmful without regard to whether a learner has had sufficient time to interact with the knowledge and skills it is testing.

On the contrary, frequent testing and at unreasonably short intervals undermines the acquisition of the content, critical thinking, problem-solving skills the students will ultimately require, not so much in the national examinations, important as they are, but to cope and manage his or life—long after school.

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