Invalsi, what are they really for?

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Catherine Le Nevez
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Who is afraid of the Invalsi? What exactly are these much-discussed school tests for?

Barbara: what anxiety, the Invalsi! And what's the point of doing it in second grade? It's too early!

Carmen: the Invalsi tests are useless. They are not used to evaluate the path of a child, much less the work of teachers.

Federico: On the other hand, I think that an external evaluation of how school is going is really useful. Otherwise who tells us how things really are?

If there is one word that is able to bring parents and teachers - or at least many of each other - together - this is it Invalsi. Just mention it to unleash a chorus of controversy. Nothing in school is more demonized, criticized, opposed than the infamous Invalsi tests. But are these tests really the absolute evil? Are they really useless at best, and at worst they become an instrument of mortification for pupils and teachers? We tried to descend into the lions' den and ask someone who knows about Invalsi, because he is one of the drafters of the Invalsi math tests: Giorgio Bolondi, Professor of Mathematics Didactics at the Free University of Bolzano and, in fact, Invalsi collaborator.

In short, professor, why all this hatred against Invalsi?

For many reasons. For example, because in Del Paese there has never been a tradition of external evaluation of the school, which has enjoyed great autonomy for some time. And because in general there is a strong resistance to the concept of evaluation, which is always experienced as a general and global judgment on the person, not as the restitution on a specific competence, in a specific moment. It is valid when the students are evaluated (if we give a high five in mathematics to a child, parents often take it as a judgment on the person or even on the role of the family!) And with the Invalsi it obviously also applies to teachers. In addition, there is the fact that evaluation is undoubtedly something critical and delicate: touching the evaluation means touching the living flesh of the school, accessing the heart of teaching, the beliefs and attitudes that one can have about a discipline or about the way of teaching it.

On the other hand, how is external evaluation experienced abroad?

Foreigners are always very impressed by two aspects of our school system: the lack of pre-service teacher training and the controversy over the Invalsi, because everywhere it is considered normal to have a national learning evaluation system. In some cases (I am thinking of Norway, the United States) these tests determine the final grade of the study path: they are the systems in which the risk of orienting the entire educational path to passing the exam is highest and it is possible to discuss whether it is appropriate or not. However, this is not the case with us.

But what are these blessed tests for?

They give us more information than what the individual teacher can give with his or her evaluation, objective information on some competences, which represents a useful reference parameter for making comparisons. This information can be used on many levels: to political decision-makers, who discovering any regional differences can decide where to intervene to improve the effectiveness of the teachings. But also to children (and families), who have an extra indication of their skills.

But isn't the evaluation of the teachers enough to give this indication to the children?

Let's try to clarify. Nobody doubts the value and importance of the evaluation made by teachers. It is a fundamental evaluation, which takes into account the path taken, how things have changed over time, the fact that perhaps a child has been ill for a long time, or that his parents have separated. It is absolutely right to have this evaluation, which however is closely linked to the context and to individuals: according to what the scientific literature on the subject tells us, it is in fact an evaluation that is also affected by emotional components, beliefs, stereotypes, general perceptions on attitudes and commitment of students and so on. So much so that if a kid changes section in the same school, his grades in the various disciplines tend to change. But it is also right to have an external and objective evaluation, which tells exactly how that student stands with respect to that particular competence. This can be useful in terms of orientation, to understand if you are really equipped to do the classical high school, or engineering at the polytechnic. Do you know how many kids collapse in their first year of university because maybe they had a very good grade in mathematics, they enrolled in engineering and then couldn't even pass an exam? Maybe even having that national evaluation would have raised an alarm bell: not to make them give up their dream, but to help them understand, with the help of the teacher, how to improve things.

Can this extra information from Invalsi also be useful for teachers?

Certainly, both because the tests help to exemplify what is required by the national indications for the curriculum, and because the external evaluation and comparison help better to understand the strengths and possible weaknesses of one's way of teaching. Once I met two teachers from the same primary school whose classes had had excellent results in the Invalsi math tests. Analyzing the details of the tests, however, it was seen that the class of one teacher had done very well in the tests on numbers and less well in those of geometry, while in the other class the opposite had happened. Here, for those teachers to see this state of affairs in black and white was the first step to questioning what could have determined those differences: different textbooks (perhaps one stronger on numbers and weaker in geometry or vice versa)? A different effectiveness of the proposed activities in different areas?

Ok: so Invalsi as tools for professional growth. But also for teachers there is the risk of being judged negatively if the outcome of the tests is not good ...

Yes, the risk of a distorted and wrong use of this instrument exists, as with all the instruments of this world.

We play a game. I propose some of the most common objections made to the Invalsi tests and you try to argue. First: it certifies only some very specific skills, linked only to three disciplines (Del Paeseno, mathematics and English).

Any assessment test evaluates only and exclusively what is contained in that assessment test. A 100-meter race cannot be accused of not evaluating the ability, for example, to collaborate with peers: it is a 100-meter race and it measures the speed with which the 100 meters are run. Which is information that can be very useful in some contexts and with respect to some objectives, less so in others, but it is still information. It seems absurd to me to decide a priori not to want to have it.

Second objection: due to the way it is structured, the Invalsi test evaluates an “ancient” school, in which there is little space for teaching strategies that are now considered more effective, such as experimentation and collaboration between peers.

Very true, but it is the school that is still like this. Why: when you give a version of Latin as a test in the classroom, do you let the kids compare themselves to each other or go to consult sources online? The fact is that, as we said at the beginning, thinking about evaluation shows us all the criticalities of the system, and we don't like this. But if the system is not what we would like, it is not the fault of the applied evaluation strategy. In any case, even if we all wish a different school there will always be a time when we will have to go and see if the kids have brought home those skills they needed to bring home. The Invalsi tests are simply a tool that allows you to collect some elements in this sense.

Finally: there are those who believe that with the tests, and with the context questionnaires that accompany them, sensitive data on individual pupils and their families are collected ...

This seems to me the most pretext objection. First, because the level of privacy on tests and questionnaires is very high (no one, not even the regional school offices and not even the minister himself, can see the result of the individual child or teacher because the data are always aggregated). But above all: is it possible that we care about sensitive data only with respect to the Invalsi, and not when we calmly post the details of our life on social networks, or when we surf the net?

Read also: Invalsi, advice to parents

(Article published in March 2022 in the magazine Focus Scuola for teachers)

Meaning of Focus School

Focus Scuola is the magazine aimed at teachers of primary and lower secondary schools.
Available only by subscription, it costs 69 euros (annual subscription, 10 issues) or 99 euros (two-year subscription, 20 issues).

  • invalsi
  • school invalsi
  • 6-14 children years
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