Fewer tests for pupils to dig deeper

Do schools in England have examinations that are fit for purpose? Three disturbing developments suggest they do not. First, employers still complain that young people leave school with inadequate basic skills in literacy, numeracy and science. Second, there are calls to scrap assessed coursework because it is open to cheating. Third, claims by ministers of improved performance are thrown into doubt by a new analysis of international data on the comparative achievements of school and college leavers (page 1).

So, does this mean record A-level grades - being celebrated by young people this week - are worthless and a sign of dumbing down? Not in the least. If there are faults in the system, they do not lie with the pupils, the most over-assessed generation ever. They lie elsewhere, most significantly in two places.

First, there is an overcrowded and over-demanding curriculum, with ill-fitting methods of testing. Every cry of "dumbing down" is met with ministerial promises to make questions tougher for the brightest. Second, the complex system arises from the Government's distrust of professionals - not least teachers. The exam is as much a measure of teaching standards as of pupil performance. So it should be - but not exclusively.

Inevitably, with the overcrowded, over-tested curriculum, teachers will teach to the test. Also, pupils are left skirting over the surface with too little time to understand the subject properly. In the sciences, for example, there is too much knowledge and "stuff" and not enough doing things in the lab. In food technology, it is more important for pupils to prove they can "design" a pizza than to cook one.

Exam reforms such as extended essays and assessed coursework have been introduced over the past 20 years, with the national curriculum, because the three-hour sudden-death test failed to assess the strengths and achievements of so many young people. With the 14-19 diplomas rapidly approaching, there is a need to look for radical improvements in assessment methods.

The point is not to abandon assessed coursework and other alternative tests but to have fewer of them, to encourage a depth of understanding.

Meanwhile, let us celebrate the real achievements announced this week.

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