In most European countries, the assessment of young people's achievement fulfils three clear functions: making sure students have covered the year's work; identifying where they are in difficulty (and, in some systems, might need to repeat the year); and qualifying them for a job or the next stage of education.
But in this country the national curriculum tests and the GCSE perform a host of other functions as well. They are used to motivate pupils, to judge individual schools, to inform parental choice, to chart progress towards government targets, and as a means of ratcheting up expectations.
The reason for this gruelling regime is the under-achievement of so many working-class and ethnic-minority children. Much of this is due to Britain's polarised class structure, but it has cruelly exposed the limitations of the education system. Our current difficulties may not all be the fault of the schools, but they are the key institutions when it comes to remedying the situation.
So, a crucial aim for the tests is to make academic achievement high stakes - in a country where for many children this has never been the case. Ministers are struggling to overcome the idea, entrenched throughout society, that such success is only possible for a few. Indeed, Government advisers taking the long view see the current framework as something of an emergency measure. Once attainment has improved, and the new expectations are part of the culture, we might be able to relax a bit.
As it happens, the clearest example of overkill - GCSE - is the most well-established and accepted. But its very existence gives the wrong signal to working-class teenagers, reinforcing the notion that at 16 young people are ready for work. Virtually every other developed country takes 18 or even 19 as the normal school leaving age. Whereas we monitor our "staying-on rate," they see 16 or 17-year-old leavers as drop-outs.
Ministers are introducing a welcome flexibility at key stage 4, along with AS levels for all at 16-plus. Will a future Government dare to be really radical, and - once the schools are no longer on a war footing - abolish the GCSE entirely?