Burden of testing

18 May 2008

 An excellent report from the House of Commons Schools Select Committee on testing and assessment this week. As it rightly makes clear, the problem is not testing itself. After all, assessing what pupils can do is essential to the learning process. Nor, necessarily, is it about the amount of testing, which is how some have interpreted it. 

 No, the real problem is the confusion over the purposes of testing. You can test pupils to inform teaching and learning. You can test pupils as an accountability measure for teachers and schools. You can test pupils to monitor national standards. And, of course, you can test pupils as a 'filter' to the next level of education.

 But what you cannot do is to load all of these purposes onto the same tests. The moment you make the tests at 11 or 14 - or GCSEs and A Levels - into a measure of school performance you make them 'high stakes' tests. The result is that schools feel pushed into teaching to the test or start to concentrate on border-line candidates in order to maximise league table positions. 

The answer, surely, is to have one set of tests, mainly teacher assessments, as assessment for learning. Another set of exams, such as A Levels, will  remain necessary for filtering applicants to university, at least until such time as we have separate university admission tests. These will inevitably be used for league tables but the key here is to ensure that the main measure is a contextually value-added system that gives credit to the progress of all pupils, not just those attaining a certain grade.  

 But testing to measure national standards or school accountability can be done by sampling a small proportion of students each year at 11 and 14, across a fuller range of different subjects, not just Maths, English and science.  


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