The limits of testing

Many people already recognise that schools are too obsessed with testing and exams rather than education. But it is not until you read Mansell’s book, that the full extent of the terrible, relentless and largely pointless exercise of what he calls ‘hyper-accountability’ becomes clear.

Britain’s children are more tested than any others in the world. In addition to the GCSEs, AS levels and A levels taken in their final three years, there are the Key Stage tests (SATs as they were originally called) taken at 7, 11 and 14, with the possibility of optional tests in most other years. Originally conceived as a way of establishing how well schools were performing – my children who took these tests a decade ago barely noticed they were being examined – , these have now become a measure of each individual’s progress and therefore are the subject of as much focus as the exams. Mansell, for example, cites the example of a group of ten year olds who are being taught some basic science through talking about a recent thunderstorm. The talk is animated and excited, and the children are not only thoroughly enjoying the class but also learning and using their imagination.

However, next door, their slightly older peers are being groomed for the test for which they have taken no less than 15 practice papers. The focus is all on subjects included in the tests such as English and maths. Virtually the whole of these children’s final two terms in primary school are taken up with coaching for the exams, with very little opportunity of learning anything else such as history and geography.

The test results in England are improving annually, but mostly, it seems because more and more work is being done to ensure children pass the tests. In great detail, Mansell highlights the narrowness of what is being taught and, in passing, has a good dig at coursework for which ‘frames’ produced by various schools spoonfeed the right approach and answers.

There is no doubt that the regime prior to SATs was to lax. Bad schools with low expectations got away with it thanks to a lax inspection regime and insufficient interest from parents. Mansell accepts that a lot of aspects of education have improved in the past decade but he says, with great regret, that the testing regime imposed on schoolchildren does not serve them, or indeed wider society, well.

Mansell has a few good ideas at the end on how to solve this ‘hyper accountability’. He suggests that only a few pupils should take each test, therefore given the schools a benchmark but ensuring that they do not become the focus of the whole academic year. In fact, one could go further. Tests could be carried out completely randomly across the country at different times, so that they represented a true snapshot of ability. Or, perhaps, even better, they could be abolished altogether and the schools left to themselves.

Tests only really reveal how good the person taking them is at doing tests. Never has this been proved more accurate than in the current testing regime in schools but in IQ, the Brilliant Idea that failed, Stephen Murdoch shows that their failings make the expression ‘worse than useless’ all too apt. He traces their rather haphazard origin right back to the mid 19th century and demonstrates their use as a tool to back up ‘vile’ eugenic theories. It is difficult to resile from his succinct conclusion: ‘The history of the use of IQ tests is appalling. IQ tests have been used for the vilest purposes…’ Mostly, the results collate with socioeconomic background and are, a rough way of gauging people’s knowledge and mental abilities but pretty useless in predicting whether they can, for example, be a good soldier or even manager.

He specifically mentions the 11 plus but could, too, refer to the Key Stage tests. Pulling together the thesis of these two books, it is clear that not only are these tests overused and determine much of what passes now for ‘education’, but they are totally useless even as guides to pupils’ ability. While most people in education know this, as Mansell shows, the driving force behind the ‘hyper accountability’ is political and therefore we await the first brave Education Secretary who will say: enough is enough, let’s get schools back into teaching rather than testing. It may be a long wait.

Christian Wolmar’s new book, Fire and Steam, a new history of the railways in Britain, will be published in September.

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