Response to Conor Ryan…again

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

Another misleading defence of national testing from Conor Ryan in The Independent today.

Mr Ryan, the former political adviser to David Blunkett, is entitled to his point of view. It’s just a shame his arguments are shot through with inaccuracies and false assumptions.

He sets up the piece by arguing that National Union of Teachers and National Association of Head Teachers, which want to replace the tests with teacher assessment, started to ballot their members last week on a planned boycott of this year’s tests. In fact, they merely announced plans to ballot for a boycott last week. A date when the ballott will begin has not yet been set.

More substantively, he says “The NUT and NAHT argue that the tests impose an excessive workload on their members, and force teachers to drill pupils in English and maths”. The implication of the first part of the sentence is that the unions are acting self-interestedly in advocating boycotting the tests: effectively teachers don’t want to support the current national testing system because it is hard work for them, whatever the impact on the pupils.

In fact, workload is not the main issue on which this campaign is being fought. The press release announcing the ballot listed four ways the union believed the test results should not be used: “To construct meaningless league tables of school  results”; “By inspectors to pre-judge schools based on proxy data provided by the SATs”; “To humiliate and demean the work of colleagues working in our toughest communities”; and “To force teachers to spend endless hours rehearsing past papers.”

Only the last could be said to have an impact on workload, and, even here, it could be argued that what is really being objected to is the fact that the workload involved is educationally repetitive and counterproductive, for pupils. I have also checked the NAHT’s proposals for an alternative form of accountability. It is clear from that that the argument is mainly being fought on the grounds that the tests have educationally undesirable side-effects and subject schools in disadvantaged areas to ritual “humiliation” which does the pupils more harm than good.

The one union which is explicitly supporting Sats tests, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, has actually done so on workload grounds: it fears that any alternative assessment system would add to teachers’ working responsibility.

Mr Ryan then argues that the Government’s “independent” expert group on assessment – whose independence is a moot point, given that it was appointed by ministers, worked to a remit set down by them and operated with only the most indirect input from this country’s impressive array of academic experts on assessment – “found these tests to be ‘educationally beneficial’.”

In fact, the group’s report said that “externally marked tests in English and maths at the end of key stage 2 can be [my italics] educationally beneficial as well as necessary for accountability purposes”. It then adds, in a heavy caveat not acknowledged in Mr Ryan’s piece: “However, we cannot ignore the risk that tests whose results are used for high-stakes accountability purposes can adversely lead to narrowing of the curriculum, ‘teaching to the test’ and undue pupil stress. We do not support drilling or narrow test preparation”.

Of course, in citing this one report, Mr Ryan also overlooked the wealth of evidence to have emerged in recent years on the use of test data backed by hyper-accountability. This website attempts to chart this evidence (see here, and my blogs), but it is, of course, worth highlighting some examples again.

Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education: “The continual testing and practising for tests has resulted in a narrow and impoverished mathematics curriculum, and poor quality teaching of that curriculum.”

Institute of Educational Assessors: “We may be churning out individuals who can pass tests and who can achieve good results to a given, known test but who cannot necessarily apply their knowledge and skills to other situations.”

National Association of Primary Education: “In a great many schools, coaching for test performance has replaced education.”

The (truly independent) Cambridge Primary Review: “The narrow focus of Sats…should be replaced” and “There is an urgent need for a thorough reform of all aspects of the assessment system in England.”

A Children, Schools and Families Select Committee inquiry into assessment, while – to be fair…- backing the concept of some form of national testing, concluded: “We consider that the current national testing system is being applied to serve too  many purposes.”

Well, no doubt Mr Ryan will dismiss this evidence as the self-interested outpourings of a teaching profession which does not like the outside scrutiny which high-stakes testing brings. But many of the organisations making complaints have no axe to grind: they do not exist to serve the needs of teachers, but education more generally.

Mr Ryan also cites a poll by IPSOS Mori which showed that “75 per cent of parents think information on the performance of primary schools should be made public”. Well, there’s a surprise. This doesn’t mean it has to be test-based information of the current kind, on which schools’ futures also hang. It  would not, of course, invalidate the provision of information based on other assessment methods, such as in-class or teacher assessment. And he says “70 per cent of parents place value on the tests in providing information about how their child’s school is performing”. Well, this is one of the purposes of the tests so it’s not surprising that parents would think it important. The question is whether another system could do it better, or without the current educational downsides.

I could keep going, but the fundamental point that Mr Ryan makes in this article is that because our education system is functioning in a particular way – in this piece, he highlights educational inequality and the fact that “one in four pupils fails to reach the expected [formerly, the average] standards in English and maths” – we need the current testing system or things will be worse.

It’s a specious argument, as if Mr Ryan is saying: “The education system isn’t working well enough, effectively letting down poorer pupils. Only the testing system  I support[which has been in use for years, by the way] can address this. Therefore, not to use the testing system I support is to let down poor pupils.”

Behind the piece is the view that the only form of accountability for schools is one which goes through Whitehall, with a testing system in which the goal for every school is to please those monitoring the test results at the DCSF.

As has been argued many times, there are other ways of providing information on the national quality of our education system, such as assessing a small sample of pupils every year on a much broader range of skills than are measured in the tests. (One of two tests last year on which all 11-year-olds’ writing – effectively their progress in the last four years – was assessed centred on their ability to write a piece about a pair of trainers. Impressed?)  There are other ways of providing information to parents, such as teacher judgements on the performance of a child over a number of years. There are other ways of holding schools to account, such as inspections and moderated teacher assessment, possibly checked by testing a small sample of pupils in different aspects of the curriculum.

Given the demonstrable educational downsides of the current test-based accountability regime in many schools, should we not be looking properly at these alternatives, rather than seeking to mislead people into sticking with the status quo?

–          I posted last year on Conor Ryan’s reaction to the Cambridge Primary Review’s report on the curriculum. View it here.

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