It is difficult to work out a balanced view of the role and influence that testing has on the experience of pupils and the quality of their education. Numerous policymakers insist that national testing provides an effective instrument for raising standards and rely on exam results as evidence of achievement in education.
Opponents of testing deploy the language of emotional deficit to condemn testing. During the past three decades, a continuous stream of reports have claimed that testing has fostered a climate of stress and anxiety in schools. Advocacy groups frequently assert that the quality of life of school children has diminished because of the allegedly negative mental health consequences of constant testing.
Since we live in a world where any challenging experience facing children frequently comes with a health warning, the alarmist warnings about the causal connection between testing and stress related pathologies probably say more about the way some adults view children than about the realities of the classroom. Opportunistic argument about how tests scar children for life would apply to exposing young people to any challenging experience.
However, there are some sound pedagogic arguments for querying the educative value of the existing regime of testing. Officials and policymakers appear convinced that tests and exam offer an accurate representation of the state of schooling. No doubt, some of the information gleaned from such sources provides useful information about the performance of children and about the broader trends in education. However a 1 per cent increase in the exam performance of children in a particular subject should not be interpreted as evidence of improvement of pupils’ understanding of a particular subject.
As a sociologist looking at exam results or league tables, I always question what is being measured. Children can and are coached to pass exams without being educated, and a fall in achievement in percentage terms does not necessarily signify a fall in standards. The marks that children achieve in an exam are often related to the effort that pupils and teachers devote to leaning the skills this challenge demands. Examination results are not unimportant but they only provide only a partial insight into the quality of education provided to students. In my recent discussion with AS- and A-level students I have become convinced that far too much time and resources are devoted to teaching to the test and far too little to cultivate their intellectual curiosity.
When teaching to the test acquires a powerful momentum the intellectual content of education diminishes. It has also led to a focus on quick-fix solutions and an obsession with performance indicators. We live in a world where a school can meet a target for literacy while doing little to cultivate children’s love of reading. In turn, examiners help out by packaging results in ways that flatter the educational system. Successive governments have turned a blind eye to dubious practices such as the dilution of standards of exams. The ethos of target-setting and measuring achievement fosters a culture of self-deception throughout the institution of education.
In principle, the formal assessment of children’s achievement can play an important role in providing insights into a child’s level of attainment and performance. However assessment – especially of primary school children – requires the kind of sensitivity and subtlety that is alien to the current forms of formalised testing. Worse still, the formal processes introduced in schools encourage the unimaginative scripting of students in the art of passing exams. The fault lies not with the principle of examining children but with the blight of rote-learning encouraged by an anti-intellectual school culture that regards testing as an end-in-itself.
In a different world, exams could be used creatively to challenge and stretch students and to provide them with an opportunity to demonstrate their achievement and creativity. Unfortunately at present the system of formal assessment tends to be used as an instrument for holding schools to account. Consequently, tests are as much about the monitoring of schools and teachers as it is about examining children. It would be nice if testing became an instrument of education rather than an auditing tool.
Frank Furedi is emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent