An obsession with targets; EDUCATION NOTEBOOK

Daily Mail July 17, 2007

TOO much testing is destroying education, according to a new book. Across 270 pages, it argues that the Government’s regime of testing, target setting and league tables is undermining the educational interests of a generation.

Ministers might boast that holding schools to account in this way is leading to higher standards, and that rising test scores provide the ‘evidence’.

But in fact, the book claims, it is now clear that an obsession with testing and tables is having damaging knock-on effects in schools.

Pupils are indeed getting better results, but does that mean they are better educated? The book argues that teachers are becoming adept at ‘teaching to the test’ because schools are judged on exam results which dictate their league table positions. And the results also affect teachers’ pay and promotion prospects, giving them even more incentive to devote as much lesson time as possible to test preparation.
This, according to Education By Numbers: The Tyranny Of Testing (published by Politico’s), leaves less time for proper learning.

At the same time, teachers are motivated to ‘cheat’ by giving pupils more help with exam coursework than strictly they should. And softer ‘vocational’ exams are forced on pupils because they are equivalent to GCSEs in the league tables.

As the book, by education journalist and researcher Warwick Mansell, reminds us, concerns about over-testing are becoming louder.

The General Teaching Council recently added its voice to calls for high-stakes testing to be scrapped, declaring that England’s pupils were among the most overexamined in the world and faced upwards of 70 different exams.

However, as the book acknowledges, centralised testing has its benefits, not least in providing information about their children’s performance to parents.

It calls on government ministers to do more to mitigate the worst effects of the testing regime, for example by giving universities and employers who want welleducated applicants a bigger say in the running of exam boards.

Ultimately, the book says, national tests for all pupils should be scrapped and replaced with a slimmer regime with only a representative sample tested each year.

It also suggests that the schools watchdog Ofsted should be given a greater role in ensuring accountability to parents and taxpayers.

This is because painstaking, resultboosting, pre-test cramming is an abuse of the system, the book says.
FURTHERMORE, the book claims that schools’ desperation to improve their pupils’ scores in the short term is put ahead of longterm learning needs.

It says that pupils, aged 10 or 11, who spend more than half their school time in year six writing practice answers for the national curriculum test in May are not learning anything new or being taught to think for themselves. The pattern is repeated throughout the GCSE and A-level years.

The book cites the growing number of universities and employers who find that schoolleavers are inadequately prepared for degrees or work. One English don, for example, says that his students now ‘know less about their chosen subject and possess less general knowledge’ than they did 20 years ago.

He blames a ‘government obsession with improving pass rates and grades and the emphasis on training at the expense of education’.

Education By Numbers goes on to identify ways in which teachers are pressured to improve pass rates.

For instance, almost every head who has been honoured has been singled out for rocketing test results in his or her school.

Meanwhile, secondary teachers attend pricey courses run by examiners.

They are given tips for drilling pupils in producing high-scoring and, typically, rote-learned answers.
And schools are encouraged to provide extra coaching for pupils on grade borderlines at GCSE. This, the book argues, is grossly unfair on other pupils because all teacher energy is focused on a minority.

Then there are course-linked textbooks endorsed by exam boards.

These leave no room for wider learning or inquiry. The book calls them mere ‘pre-exam revision sheets’.
Ministers remain committed to testing and tables but from September are to try out refinements to the regime, which involve shorter but more frequent tests, taken when pupils are ready.

The new Children’s Secretary, Ed Balls, revealed his thinking in the Commons last week, declaring: ‘Regular testing is essential for monitoring the progress of individual pupils. But there should be scope for schools to make wellinformed judgments on when pupils should be tested.’

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