Recently there have been many articles in the press about national tests: about A-level standards, primary school targets not being met, or reform of assessment for 14 to 19-year-olds.
Whatever stance is taken, it is generally agreed that teaching in schools is becoming increasingly focused on enabling pupils to pass exams. There is little incentive for teaching topics and concepts that will not be assessed and, with the next series of tests always looming, there is little time for teachers and pupils to pursue their own ideas and interests. In primary and secondary schools, teaching new concepts almost comes to a halt for half a term as children are prepared for forthcoming tests. Pupils may be performing better in tests, but creative, inspiring teaching has suffered from this obsession with measuring progress in education.
There is another problem with the system: assessment is big business. Some secondary schools spend more than pound;250,000 a year on testing. One of the three English exam boards no longer has charitable status and is owned by an American publishing company. A business whose goal is to maximise profits is not conducive to offering a true service to schools. Hence the probable demise of unpopular subjects such as Latin and Greek.
Another worrying aspect is the dubious practice of senior examining personnel writing the recommended books for courses. The closer the books are to the examination questions, the greater the sales. Every time the syllabuses are changed, the publishers and authors linked to exam boards produce revised versions of the books, thus increasing their profits. I hesitate to use the word corrupt, but I am not sure how else to describe this situation.
The real scandal in the assessment system, however, is the awarding procedure. Having three competing exam boards is inefficient and one of the main reasons why the pass rates continue to rise each year. No subject committee for any board is likely to reduce its overall pass rate and make itself unpopular, with the inevitable reduction in the number of candidates and loss of income in subsequent years. Although the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has recently gone to great lengths to police the situation, it is inherently unfair on candidates to have more than one board setting essentially the same exams as it is impossible to have a common standard across three boards.
In 1992, in England the A-level pass rate was 80 per cent. It is now 96 per cent, an increase of 16 percentage points over 12 years. In Scotland, the corresponding pass rate for Highers was 69 per cent in 1992 and is 71 per cent in 2004, a two percentage point increase over the same period. Yet there has been no annual debate about standards north of the border, nor is there evidence to suggest that Scottish students have become intellectually inferior to their English counterparts.
Only England among Western industrialised countries feels the need for detailed profiles of the abilities of its five-year-olds and national tests at seven, 11 and 14 years. In most countries compulsory primary education does not start until six or seven years, and there are no national tests until the age of 18. Most of the problems described above are the result of the actions of the QCA, a political quango that uses expensive consultation processes. The QCA decides the agenda, insists on answering its own questions and vetoes questions that should be discussed. Although this ensures political priorities are achieved, our education system is gradually becoming increasingly chaotic through the QCA's actions.
For almost 15 years, we have had three tiers of entry in GCSE mathematics.
Pupils who enter the lowest tier cannot achieve the all-important grade C, so in effect they have failed before even sitting the exam. Following the recent inquiry chaired by Professor Adrian Smith, this is now likely to change, but why has it taken more than 15 years to change a policy that schools never supported and which has been so unfair to thousands of children?
A radical overhaul of the whole process of examining the curriculum is urgently needed, with the aim of producing a system that is simpler and fairer. Here are my suggestions.
* Amalgamate England's three exam boards into one, free from political interference and run as a service for education, not as a money-making business. The English Examination Board would have responsibility for the setting, marking and awarding of academic-related examinations and nothing else.
* The Department for Education and Skills should take direct responsibility for the curriculum, informed by genuine open consultation with the professions and practising teachers.
These first two actions would remove the need for a body such as the QCA.
* National testing at key stages 1, 2 and 3 should be abandoned. In its place should be optional yearly tests made freely available on the internet, which could be diagnostic as well as providing age-related progress on a national scale.
* Modular exams should be restricted to adults. School exams should be norm-referenced and recalibrated so that they inform employers and universities.
* Practical vocational assessment should be developed as an alternative to academic qualifications, and its awarding should be overseen by an appropriate non-political body.
These are radical ideas but I believe they are needed if we are to have a sensible, fair, education service for all. But will any education minister dare to suggest them when there are such strong political and commercial vested interests at stake?
Professor David Burghes is director of the centre for innovation in mathematics education at the University of Exeter.