Forum (an educational journal), November 2007

Education By Numbers: The Tyranny of Testing
London: Politico’s
270 pp., ISBN 978-1-84275-199-2 hardback, £19.99

Warwick Mansell argues that England no longer has a state education system worthy the name.  Instead, “England’s education system is now an exams system.” (p. 3), and the energies of those involved in it are misdirected towards maximising results rather than nurturing the minds, hearts and spirits of those who learn and teach:

I believe that teaching to the test, so far from being discouraged, is now the guiding philosophy behind England’s approach to education… [T]his approach is a disaster, since education… is not about following rules.  It is about engagement with a subject, seeing connections and… thinking critically.  (pp. 228-9)

Mansell has certainly engaged with his subject, spending three years anatomising England’s testing-regime. While not exploring the connections, he links school testing to the wider governmental obsession with public sector ‘performance’ or ‘output’ numerically rendered, and with the commodification of knowledge.  And he is unstintingly critical of the government’s testing-policy, challenging even as his book goes to press the so-called ‘test-when-ready’ proposals, which:

…in reality… stand to exacerbate yet further the damaging trends catalogued in this book.  This is because ministers are not addressing the central conceptual difficulty of attempting to use test-results to judge the performance both of pupils and their schools. (p. xii)

Elsewhere he indicts ministers and civil servants for “… putting their own interests, in defending this regime, above those of pupils” (p. 52).

Mansell’s main focus is the cost to students of the remorseless reduction of Primary and Secondary education to test-preparation in the name of higher standards.  Motivated in part by his own declared love of school and joy in learning, he is driven by ‘exasperation’ and ‘frustration’ at the government’s “unthinking insistence that results are to be pursued as ends in themselves” (p. 229).  He brings before a non-specialist audience a wide array of evidence and argument in support of his contention that “testing children has been the government’s defining education policy” (p. xiv) and that this policy has indeed been disastrous for students and for the quality and nature of the education offered in England’s state schools.

A reporter for the TES, Mansell began to concern himself particularly with matters of testing in 2003, prompted perhaps by the NUT’s failed attempt that year to organise a boycott of the KS2 tests.  He offers a brief historical account of the drive towards “… the current position, where the government is the dominant arbiter of what gets taught, how it gets taught and, crucially, how the fruits of that teaching are judged” (p. 16).  Oddly he omits to mention the mass resistance by all main teacher-unions in 1993 which saw the original KS3 tests stillborn and the Education Secretary of the day bankrupted politically.  Dearing’s Review rescued many Secondary school subjects from the reach of National Curriculum testing, but NC tests were retained in English and Welsh schools to be taken by 7, 11 and 14 year olds in English, Maths and Science, with tests for ICT added later.  Under Jane Davidson Wales subsequently reconsidered its national assessment regime and departed from the English trajectory, delivering what Mansell terms “a huge vote of no confidence in the English system” (p. 243).  In the UK only state school students (and their teachers) in England remain burdened by a testing-regime among the most relentless and far-reaching in the world.

Mansell believes that some forms of testing can assess students’ capabilities and future learning needs, and he would retain such tests in schools.  However he is clear that the use of public tests as the unit of accounting for the measurement of school-performance must lead to the corruption of the indicator, and to a host of other malign consequences.  Schools find themselves required to maximise the scores their students attain in NC tests (and exams at 16+), the results of which are used to compile OFSTED judgements and the highly influential League Tables of schools.  Headline percentages of student-attainment, at the NC test ‘benchmark levels’ and the all-important A*-C GCSE grade figure, have been made the proxy for school standards.  The higher the scores the better the school.  The lower the scores, the more pressure to raise them, and the more costly to a school its failure to do so.  Consistently ‘poor’ test-scores will mean loss of funding, removal of self-management opportunities, and ultimately closure.  Mansell calls this regulatory framework, which operates to constrain not only the actions but also the thoughts and utterances of school-staff, ‘hyper-accountability’.

Mansell regards hyper-accountability as so pernicious he labels it:

… a form of institutional corruption, in which the school’s requirement for good results is put ahead of teachers’ need to take objective decisions about the best way to educate their pupils.  (p. 80)

He quotes teachers who testify to the prioritising of their students’ test-success over an educational experience characterised by the depth and breadth of the understandings it generates.  Drilling and skilling, rote-learning, syllabus-content governed by exam-questions, and teaching which focuses on exam-technique characterise the process, and lead Mansell in his concern at the quality of learning to argue that:

Results produced under hyper-accountability, then, would represent a measure of how well pupils had been prepared for the demands of the particular exam, rather than their overall understanding of the subject.  (p. 106)

Furthermore he suggests:

… the possibility of corruption is never far from the surface of the testing game.  And when so much hangs on exam scores, those who have power over what counts as good performance… wield immense influence.  This can be very valuable to them…   (p. 95)

Mansell details how well-placed examiners may cash in by writing textbooks “geared very closely to the requirements of a particular test” (p. 103) or by running costly staff-training seminars with a similar focus.  He points out how private firms profit from the anxiety generated by high-stakes testing: commercially-produced test-related ‘revision’ or ‘support’ materials are very widely sold. He recalls “the GNVQ scam” (p. 124) invented by Thomas Telford school to secure League Table success and make money in the process.   Mansell claims other similar “scams” are still operating (pp. 130-131).

Teachers tell Mansell how teaching-the-test occupies a term and more of Year 6 and Year 9, while for students in other years ‘optional’ SATs and associated test-preparation and revision steal swathes of lessons which might have been spent learning something new.  The testing-mandate, linked to a prescriptive National Curriculum, further removes from teachers control over fundamental aspects of their labour.  The specifics of lesson-content are determined by the tests, the scope of pedagogical decision-making is consequently narrowed and, for students, what will be regarded as relevant learning becomes drastically limited.  So does their room to shape the direction of the educational experience.

One particularly shocking example of the asphyxiation by hyper-accountability of educational experience takes place in an after-hours Year 6 booster-class whose students are presented with an extract from ‘Private Peaceful’, Michael Morpurgo’s novel set in the First World War.  The chosen passage vividly describes a poison-gas attack, but Mansell observes that over the course of the thirty minutes devoted to studying it “there is not one mention of the novel’s subject-matter, as pupils focus on question-answering techniques.” (p. 54).

Mansell adumbrates other adverse consequences of the testing-regime, well-known to many students and parents.  Besides a narrower and duller curriculum-offer for a sizeable part of the school year, NC testing means teacher-demotivation and demoralisation, student resistance and disaffection, and increased student-anxiety (physically manifest as sleep-loss, bed-wetting or skin-disorders) at a level to worry children’s charities.  Most unfortunately for a government which believes that testing raises standards, NC tests work to widen the gap between higher and lower attaining students.  Hyper-accountability atomises knowledge and fosters a view of learning as merely instrumental in pursuit of the requisite test-score.  As courses become more and more tightly-defined to ensure ‘coverage’ of what is on the test or exam, creative and critical thinking is exiled and holistic approaches to learning banished.  Mansell records views from the tertiary sector suggesting that the instrumentalism and ‘spoon-feeding’ now widely prevalent at secondary level hamper students as they move to further and higher education.

Hyper-accountability is also responsible, in Mansell’s eyes, for the rise in questionable practices surrounding GCSE coursework.  Mansell terms these cheating, and lists in particular the abuse of ‘writing-frames’, multiple re-drafting of work by candidates and the condoning of overly-flexible deadlines.  He charges that hyper-accountability raises expectations of teachers (they will ensure increasing rates of higher attainment) but lowers expectations of students (teachers will do more of the work for them, to minimise the risk of ‘under-performance’).

Mansell airs concerns over the marking of tests and GCSEs.  He repeats the argument made on purely statistical grounds in some academic research that perhaps one in three NC test-papers is likely to be mis-classified, and points out that it is not possible to make comparison of educational standards over time if such comparison only uses the yearly exam-scores as an indicator.  He presents data from several multi-national testing programmes to render problematic government claims for large rises in standards over recent times in maths, science and reading.

For all the ministerial talk of bringing schools to account, Mansell observes that:

There is no mechanism… to highlight and criticise schools which are so obsessive in their focus on results that they neglect other aspects of pupils’ education. (p. 222)

In a footnote he argues that the scope for questioning government policy is very limited.  This wider political claim, which touches on the role of MPs, of constitutional checks and balances, and the power of government to misrepresent criticism however well founded, leads Mansell to look to “an unpredictable and sensation-seeking media” as a counterbalance to governmental power (p. 225).  This orientation may be unsurprising for a journalist, but a more adequate political response is likely to be based on teacher-unions, parental organisations and school-student bodies.  It urgently requires organising.

Mansell ends with a glance at alternative assessment-regimes in other countries, and offers a remedy for England.  We should scrap NC testing and use the Welsh system of moderated teacher-assessment and representative sampling or group-testing as our model.  OFSTED should become a service for parents, supplying a rounded portrait of the school’s provision and grounding its judgements on lesson-observation not test-score data.  There should be annually-published parental surveys and an enhanced complaints procedure for parents and students.  We should retain the current KS2 and KS3 Strategies along with the National Curriculum.

A review by Professor Colin Richards in the TES urged Mansell’s book, shorn of its more repetitive passages, be quickly re-published as a paperback.  Whatever issue might be taken with Mansell’s view of coursework for example, or his unconsidered use of the language of ‘fixed ability’ (language which plays into the hands of those upholding the current testing-regime for its efficiency at dealing students into their ‘proper’ or ‘necessary’ sets), or with his failure adequately to differentiate ‘testing’ from ‘assessment’, or with the emancipatory limits of the liberal approach to education he appears to want to set against the current system, it seems crucial Mansell’s account reaches the widest audience.  He secures his claim that testing tyrannises over our schools, and demonstrates that education by numbers is no education at all.


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