Conor Ryan defending high-stakes tests again

Thursday, August 13th

Another defence of high-stakes testing from Conor Ryan, the former education adviser to David Blunkett and Tony Blair, in today’s Independent.

The article, though well-drafted as usual, is weak in several ways.

Apart from leading in on the one percentage point drop in English results, which as pointed out last week really means nothing, Mr Ryan offers an unconvincing explanation for why the test results are higher than they were in the 1990s, and why the data has shown little such improvement in recent years.

He argues:

“Around 175,000 more youngsters still reach the expected level each year than did so 14 years ago, a result of the combination of accountability and pressure that has accompanied the tests, including Labour’s literacy and numeracy strategies.”

And: “The most important feature of the years between 1995 and 2000, when results rose rapidly, was single-minded momentum. Schools were in no doubt that their top priority was the 3Rs.”

Well, the most likely reason for the improvement is a combination of three factors: teachers becoming more familiar with the requirements of what were in 1995 a completely new set of tests;  the introduction of the numeracy strategy into maths lessons; and a slipping in test standards.

The first factor has been well-documented following the introduction of tests around the world. The third, which was investigated comprehensively in research commissed by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and belatedly published in 2003, also suggests a slipping of standards in the years 1995 to 2000, at least in English. Since standards were tightened, the results improvements in that subject have indeed flattened off. The same study found that there had not been a corresponding slipping of standards in maths. This, and other evidence, suggests to my mind that the gain in maths has been genuine. But the much more persuave explanation for that fact is the introduction of the numeracy strategy itself (factor two), rather than the vague policy “momentum” suggested by Mr Ryan. 

He also implies that schools are now in doubt that “their top priority [is] the 3Rs”. This is laughable. While it could be argued that some recent policy initiatives, such as the proposed introduction of the school report card, measuring wider aspects of school life than academic results, have not been focused exclusively on 3Rs standards, the reality of school life is that test results remain the be-all-and-end-all for school leaders in particular. In fact, the emphasis on them in the accountability system has undoubtedly increased between the end of Ryan’s time as a policy adviser at the Department for Education and Skills, in 2001, and now. As I reported in a TES article last year, Ofsted inspection judgements in recent years have been driven almost entirely by test results in those three subjects, and league tables and targets remain as influential as they ever have. While Mr Ryan may bemoan a slight change of emphasis in policy discussions since the Brownites took over from his Blairite friends, the reality at primmary school level has not altered much at all.

There are other elements of the article with which to quibble, not least the conclusion, which says that children would not be better taught without independently set and marked tests [of the current type]. One of the best arguments against this has been the move of private schools away from Sats tests in recent years. But I come back to a familiar argument against this: is it really the best use of the time of pupils in year 11 that they should spend months being drilled for a test which, despite the arguements in this latest piece, are  not important in themselves to pupils’ futures. Mr Ryan, and those making similar arguments, need to be more imaginative when it comes to thinking out alternatives.

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