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Editorial: Testing times

The last time a TES editorial accused the chief inspector of schools of being on the side of the angels (in 1996, as a matter of fact), we reported that he was introducing into inspections a systematic allowance for schools' social background. He promptly wrote us a letter for publication saying we had been misled.

This week, however, there can be no mistake; our reporter Sarah Cassidy witnessed Chris Woodhead's public denunciation of the national curriculum tests as vague, unreliable and of less use than proper standardised tests - judgments with which The TES would broadly concur.

His observations may well embarrass the Government, which has based its targets strategy on these tests. David Blunkett, in particular, has pinned his whole political future on using them to demonstrate that literacy and numeracy would improve by 2002. But Mr Woodhead is asserting the independence of his office in his own inimitable way.

The law obliges him to advise the Education and Employment Secretary on school standards. And, as it happens, Mr Blunkett also asked him earlier this year to make his advice available to the Qualifications and Curriculum Agency - the body responsible for the tests. No doubt both will now be anxious to hear from the chief inspector the OFSTED evidence underpinning these important conclusions.

The QCA's discomfort is all the greater because it has already failed to hit one of its own test targets: the publication of KS2 results school-by-school this autumn in time to inform school choices. Whatever the shortcomings of the tests, their fundamental purpose was to help parents choose.

Problems earlier this year when the agency was preoccupied with merging the former school and vocational assessment bodies - created delay and increased the cost. As a result, the millions spent were largely wasted because the performance tables will not appear until the spring term. Schools expecting their own results before the summer holidays had to wait for the autumn term, reducing any usefulness for planning purposes.

Meanwhile, unhappiness about the reliability of KS3 tests was one factor forcing the last-minute U-turn on the Government's progress measure in the secondary tables, underlining wider doubts about the suitability of national curriculum levels for value-added measures. Testing is here to stay, but the days of the levels as an assessment tool must be numbered.

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