'English schools are among the worst at teaching to the test. So when will we do something about it?'

It is about time policymakers in the UK started thinking about our obsession with testing, writes TES chief education adviser and former schools minister Jim Knight

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A month ago I wrote about an experiment carried out by Lawrenceville High School to see how well pupils would score resitting tests after their summer break. The results were pretty shocking in showing how little the September test results reflected retained knowledge after three months. 

Now I have been pointed to much more worrying statistics.

I met up with Danny Dorling. He is a professor of geography at the University of Oxford and specialises in inequality. He pointed me towards an article he published with Natasha Stotesbury in Statistics Views. It has the snappy title: "Understanding income inequality and its implications: why better statistics are needed".

This paper compares country results for 15-year-olds' achievement in maths, literacy and problem-solving as measured in the Pisa tests, with results in the PIAAC Survey of Adult Skills (article free to subscribers). This latter survey is a similar standardised international survey of 33 countries’ adult skills that tests 16- to 24-year-olds. The tests were organised by Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and published in 2012 and 2013.

While I have an inclination these days to think league tables might be best left to sport, it is impossible not to want to look at how the UK ranks. 

Let’s start with maths. At age 15, out of 17 countries who did all the tests, the UK comes 12th; at 16-24 this drops further to 15th. With literacy we go from 11th to 16th. Finally, the new “21st-century skills” problem-solving tests see us go from 6th out of 14 to 13th out of 14.

Assuming we think these OECD tests are correct, this is a dramatic failure of our schooling system to deliver on what policy has designed. The assumption is that if we focus on knowledge acquisition and recall in tests then that will best equip young people with the knowledge they need to succeed.

In the UK it strongly looks like we educate children to pass tests but they then forget the knowledge thereafter.

The UK is not alone. The US has the same problem. Their performance mirrors the UK scores and is always just behind. It is another jurisdiction that uses high-stakes accountability testing, and has high levels of social inequality.

Who are the winners?

The two countries that score in the top two in all three Pisa scores are Japan and South Korea. They maintain the supremacy in problem-solving but are overtaken in the adult skills tests for maths and literacy by Finland. Sweden’s 15-year-olds are bottom across the tests but near the top amongst 16- to 25-year-olds in all three. The other winners are the Netherlands and Australia.

What does this tell us?

First, that the current policy design in the UK and the US is not working. More equal societies or those with high parental aspirations do much better. 

Finland is often dismissed as a small outlier. It is worth noting that it has recently commissioned an in-depth review of schooling because of a recognition that however successful they are now, the needs of the labour market are changing so fast that they need to redesign their system for the next hundred years.

Sweden radically reformed its schools to bring in more choice and “free schools”. It is now rolling that back and maybe these results show why: current pupils are doing less well than their older counterparts.

Australia has focused on teacher quality and continues to raise the bar on teacher training and standards. Even the US has woken up; president Barack Obama has called for a limit on testing in schools and has also signalled a move away from textbooks to online resources.

I can’t help but wonder what it takes for education policymakers in the UK to wake up and realise that we too need radical education reform. Business, through the CBI, is calling for it. Teachers consistently argue that too much testing is constraining learning. International evidence continues to show continuing to do what we have been doing is insanity. 

How long do we have to wait for effective change?

For the full news story, see this week’s TES magazine. Subscribers can read the article here

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