Air of mystery that surrounds tests;Another Voice;Opinion

30th April 1999 at 01:00
ON THE SUBJECT of exams, I identify with those old people you see in the queue at the corner shop still - a quarter of a century on - converting their change into shillings and half crowns. I still think in old exams. For me they are a system that was brutally important for the individual pupil but deliberately useless as a means of assessing schools or teachers.

At the very socially-mixed north London primary school I went to in the late 1960s, there was no actual 11-plus but instead a series of more or less informal tests. Much the same result could have been achieved by drawing a line with a ruler across page 45 of the A to Z. The kids who lived in the local council estate were diverted to a disastrous secondary modern, while those of us who lived in terraced houses were steered to the grammar school up the road. The idea of using such tests to assess teachers or schools didn't really apply. They were simply a drastically effective form of social engineering - before the term was invented - in order to direct people to their proper station in life.

If those old tests had the clarity of the last trump being blown on the Day of Judgment, then the national curriculum tests are something more mysterious, like the Holy Spirit. There is a general agreement about its existence but a curious vagueness sets in when people start to describe it. They occur at vague, unpredictable intervals, like Easter.

Sometimes we only know they've happened when a child mentions that last week she had to sit still and be quiet for an hour. Does it even matter? We know that these aren't the exams that decide our children's fate. These - for some parents at least - are now the entrance exams to grammar schools and private schools and in the final year of primary schools civilised middle-class women are suddenly transformed into voracious stage mothers, dragging their children round from exam to exam as if they were auditions for soap commercials.

But for the rest of us, these tests taken by our seven and 11-year-olds have an air of mystery about them. In the case of our nearly-six-year-old daughter one of the mysteries is how, within the next year, she will be able to take any sort of exam at all. Confronted by the word "and" in what we laughably call assisted reading she will look at the picture and confidently say something like "teddy bear". How can you test someone who doesn't know anything and can't do anything?

In my own experience, most parents and pupils haven't seemed to know much about when the exams were coming, what they consist of or, except in the broadest terms, what the results mean. This is part of their beauty. They're handy for seeing how pupils, teachers and schools are doing but they haven't got that nasty particularity. Precise marks, like acne, drugs and sex are reserved for secondary school.

But this vagueness just won't last. The problem - if it is a problem - is that when information is published, it has its own momentum. In his book, The Road Ahead, Bill Gates talks about the all the benefits of our new access to information and he gives the example of how car drivers could be given the most traffic-free route. For an intelligent man, that is a very stupid thing to say. If everybody had the information, then the "traffic-free" route will quickly become clogged. The information has itself become as important part of the system as roadworks, diversions and so on.

The tests are instituted to assess learning. But as the results become available, then the tests themselves assume all sorts of importance in themselves, whether related to school funding, the reputation of a school or the confidence of a child.

We've just moved out of London and the head of the very good small inner-city primary school we left wistfully asked if it would be possible to for us to leave - after the tests. (Incidentally, do the assessments of results take into account the fact that in many state primary schools with good reputations, middle class parents piggy-back on the state system and then remove their offspring in the last year or two? And who are they likely to be replaced by? Well, Kosovan refugees, maybe, which is wonderful, if not good for your key stage 2 results.) And of course, though we know the exams don't really matter, like good middle-class parents we have acquired the book of Official National Test Papers, published by the Stationery Office, a book which has an ambiguity running through it like a fault-line. The tests are designed as a neutral assessment of how pupils are doing, yet they can improve their scores by acquiring familiarity with the test procedures.

Parents are given hints on preparing their children and - these books are published in conjunction with The Times - they are advised, in the blurb on the back of the book, to "look out for The Times articles, which will tell you more about these tests." And which also reveals something of the class bias at work. Does the health service accompany its thermometers with advice on tricks as to how to make your temperature appear more nearly normal?

Your intelligent 11-year-old might ask: why am I learning how to do these exams? Wouldn't it be better just to learn more English and maths? An honest answer to that question would be a cruel education in itself on the way British society works.

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