An (un)necessary evil: Five ways to stop testing from controlling your classroom

Written by: Mark Creasy | Published:
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As primary school teachers, how can you embrace and take control of testing and not let it ru(i)n
your life? Mark Creasy offers colleagues five things to remember

It’s in the test!” comes the plaintive response when teachers up and down the land are asked by equally mournful learners: “Why do we have to do this?”

This has become an ad nauseum refrain for many years now and we know, unless we have been living under a rock somewhere, that teachers are feeling the pressure even more this year with the return to full, in-person exams.

You can read elsewhere about the merits of testing children, the impact on children’s mental health, and the way that the curriculum is consistently narrowed to be able to prepare the children for their exams – even more so after the learning that was lost during the lockdowns and school bubbles bursting.

However, this is not my purpose here. I would certainly like to conduct a radical overhaul of the education system, including (or rather, especially) the testing regime – but in the meantime this is the system in which we find ourselves. Although, I would heartily recommend Martin Illingworth’s Forget School (2020) as an antidote to the current situation.

In this article, I want to be constructive for everyone at the coalface, as it were. The current testing regime is part of our education system and shows no signs of abating any time soon – in fact with the government’s 90% aspiration recently announced in the latest education White Paper – 90% of primary school children to achieve the expected standard in key stage 2 reading, writing and maths by 2030 (DfE, 2022) – it is likely to be exacerbated.

Therefore, here are some ways in which you can embrace them and ensure that you are in control of them, rather than having them run your classroom and ruin your – and your learners’ – lives.

Everything that follows is drawn from direct, personal experience and is how I operate on a daily and weekly basis with my class. Nothing requires huge investments of time or money – which should please the senior leadership team – but they do fulfil some simple criteria:

  • They have a positive impact on outcomes.
  • The do not induce stress.
  • They do not create vast amounts of work.
  • And, most importantly: they do not lead to an overhaul or (even worse) the ignoring of the school’s curriculum to be able to teach the test requirements.

I share more of these in my book Independent Thinking on Primary Teaching (2022), but to whet your appetite and to get you started here are five things I would suggest that you remember.

1, Your curriculum should address the test anyway

This may be one for the school/subject leaders out there, but the biggest thing to ask is: “How does what I am teaching address what the children will be tested upon?”

If this first, fundamental, element is achieved, there should be no need for the last-minute desperate cramming, where almost everything – including your values and your soul – get thrown to the wall.

While most schools will have their maths curriculum addressed, do you use those skills in other subjects to check they are cemented? In English, colleagues often bemoan the texts used for SATs, but how are you addressing this?

Consider how the texts used across the curriculum, particularly geography, history, RE, and science, will provide your learners with a breadth and depth of literary experience and exposure to the language and styles they should know – not just for the test, but for life.

I know from working with colleagues across the country that this is a less well-travelled route, compared to simply increasing reading sessions – as part of early morning work, guided comprehensions, class readers, reading groups, reading interventions, class stories – many of which take place on the same day!

Of course, as with everything regarding the tests this should be conducted across the entirety of the key stage, not just the exam year. If your school is not forward-thinking enough to have done this, then as you approach the next academic year look at what can be introduced with the reading materials you use across all subjects.

This, in turn, will also allow you to supplement the grammar and punctuation elements, as well as expose the children to the spelling rules. Come to that…

2, You can create the models you want

Rather than waste time searching for examples, with regards to SPaG, create your own. This is easily done and saves time in the long run as you have them to refer back to in the future. I use these in many ways:

  • Finding the examples.
  • A cloze exercise.
  • Finding the errors.
  • Provide alternatives.
  • Using them as a stimulus to create their own.

If you do this across the entire key stage, as well as throughout the exam year, you will have the opportunity to consistently build and develop the skills the children need, for their future learning and not just the test at one point. This attitude should pervade when you consider advice from Hesiod…

3, Hesiod’s logic

“If you add a little to a little and do this often, soon the little will become great.”

Apply Greek poet Hesiod’s logic and don’t store up all notion of the exams until just before they occur – although some schools are now undertaking not just mock SATs, but mock, mock SATs. I’ve even heard of some doing a third set of mock SATs! Whatever happened to the phrase: “A pig doesn’t get any fatter the more you measure it”?

What I would suggest is regular, low-stakes testing, devised to check that the learning has stuck and can be applied in both the short and long term, plus to check what the children know about something that is upcoming.

And this does not add to the workload if...

  • Children can create the tests then mark them and feedback to a peer.
  • Partners work together to check with a second pair, which includes moderation.
  • You create a test of wrong answers, the children then correct them – I have seen these being shared for free online so save time and effort and use them.
  • You use online resources – e.g. Google Forms is great for multiple choice questions.

Remember, if you make this part of your everyday practice:

  • Early morning work.
  • Playtime/lunchtime exit passes.
  • Learning breaks.
  • End of lesson checks.
  • Pre-lesson checks.
  • End of the day quizzes.

Then you don’t need 50 questions each time, five will do and then you can make it a five-minute task – 30 seconds per question, 30-second check and two-minute marking and modelling. If you cannot fit that into your daily routine, there really is something wrong! This means that the children will become well-versed in exam questions as...

4, Fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself

This may have been said by Dumbledore (book) and Hermione (film) in Harry Potter about Voldemort but it is equally applicable to teachers and exams. (Pop) Quizzes, puzzles, problems, questions and check-ins are all ways I have heard colleagues describe what the children are going to do.

By explaining what the children are doing, its purpose (to check and prepare my teaching) I find the stress is removed from this simple word: exam! Plus, if you really think that the children are fooled, perhaps it is not them that needs some form of a test?

5, Have fun!

Yes, it is possible, I promise! I’m not saying never undertake structured exam questions, but they are not the only way of doing things – in fact, I would suggest making them the exception, not the norm.

I have already said how to incorporate exam questions into your daily practice, but gamification is perfect for this as this form of engagement will flood the learners’ brains with dopamine, meaning they can’t help but recall the information when they need to apply it – often without realising why they know it. Try games such as (search online): Maths Splat, grammar or algebra top trumps, spelling skipping, SPaG Jenga, grammar pairs (cards)...

All of these are simple games and, in my experience, pupils will then want to play them (even during wet weather playtimes) as they have invested in them and they are fun. And fun is vital. After all, education is too important to be taken seriously.

  • Mark Creasy is an Independent Thinking associate and experienced primary school teacher. His book Independent Thinking on Primary Teaching: Practical strategies for working smarter, not harder (Independent Thinking Press) is out now. Visit

Further information & resources

Headteacher Update Summer Edition 2022

This article first appeared in Headteacher Update's Summer Edition 2022. This edition was sent free of charge to every primary school in the country. A digital edition is also available via

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