Voluntary national tests may affect weak students

Academically, primary and secondary school students of low socioeconomic status benefit significantly from national tests. However, schools with the most disadvantaged students are also most likely to opt out of the tests.

03.09.2019 |MIA ULVGRAVEN

PHOTO: Johny Kristensen/Colourbox

The conclusion drawn in a new research article from TrygFonden's Centre for Child Research at Aarhus BSS is clear: The national tests in the subjects of reading and mathematics elevate the students’ academic level, and the effect persists after both three and four years. Students whose parents have a low income and low levels of education benefit particularly from being tested.

In addition, the study shows that schools with many students of low socioeconomic status are more reluctant to measure student performance although the tests are compulsory today.

“Politicians should consider this contradiction when deciding how to organise the testing process in future,” says Simon Calmar Andersen, professor and centre director at TrygFonden's Centre for Child Research at Aarhus BSS.

According to the government’s memorandum of understanding, the national tests will be abolished in the lowest grades and possibly put on hold in all year groups. Furthermore, an evaluation of the national tests that were introduced by the previous government is underway. Meanwhile, some have suggested that the national tests should be voluntary for the individual school.

“Our research suggests that a voluntary scheme could have an unfortunate effect. If politicians agree to make the national tests voluntary, there is great risk that the students who benefit the most from being tested are the students who won’t be tested in future,” says Andersen. He has carried out the study together with Professor Helena Skyt Nielsen, his colleague at TrygFonden's Centre for Child Research.

"We might be able to improve the tests, but it is important that policymakers weigh the pros and cons of making the tests voluntary"


Simon Calmar Andersen - professor, Department of Political Science, centre director TrygFonden's Centre for Child Research, Aarhus BSS

Schools opt out of test

Even though the national tests are compulsory, not all schools actually performed them in 2010. The schools had to book the tests themselves, and not all of them did. The study shows that the schools most likely not to book the test were those with a large proportion of students of low socioeconomic status, very low average grades in the municipal school leaving examination and more than 15 per cent immigrants.

“It is not surprising that schools with relatively weak students are reluctant to perform the tests. A new study conducted by some of our colleagues shows that teachers are more critical towards test results and less likely to assume part of the responsibility for them if the results turn out to be poor - which teachers at schools with students of low socioeconomic status are perhaps expecting.”

Other research may explain why weak pupils learn the most

The reason that the weakest students improve their academic performance most significantly after being tested may be that teachers do not have as clear a picture of the weak students’ skills as they do those of the strongest students.

“From another study, we know that teachers have an unclear idea of the academic skills of weak students. Teachers will often have a rather good idea of the skills of strong students. This means that the knowledge that a test can provide about these pupils won’t be that ground-breaking.  However, the knowledge that a test can provide about a weak student will often be a bigger eye-opener. That information may help teachers take action and make progress,” says Nielsen.

The study shows that the strongest students with top grades do not actually benefit academically from having their reading skills tested. However according to the researchers, the effect is significant when you look at the overall result for all students.

The researchers have compared their results to other studies that explored the effect of reducing class sizes with three to four students and of having an extra teacher in the class for most of the school year.

“The student benefits are more or less the same. In addition, it is significantly cheaper to test the students than to lower the class size or hire an extra teacher,” says Nielsen.

IT system failure has helped researchers

The study is based on personal information derived from civil registration numbers of all primary and secondary school pupils from grade 2 to 6 in the 2009/2010 school year. In that particular year, an IT system failure meant that around five per cent of the registered students were not tested. In 2012 and 2013, this group performed worse in reading and mathematics than the group that completed the tests in 2010. Because the students were registered for the tests, the researchers assume that they were as prepared for the test as the other students. The system failure targeted random students allowing the researchers to conclude that the difference in the academic skills of the two groups was caused by the 2010 test.

“We might be able to improve the tests, but it is important that policymakers weigh the pros and cons of making the tests voluntary,” says Andersen.

About the study

The new research article, ”Learning from Performance Information”, builds on results that Simon Calmar Andersen and Helena Skyt Nielsen delivered as input to Rambøll’s evaluation of the national tests in 2013.

The new research article includes additional data, which among other things shows that an effect persists four years after the first test. Furthermore, the new article provides new knowledge about which schools are likely to opt out of the tests.

  The research article has been conditionally accepted for publication in the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory - one of the world’s leading journals within public administration.