Deconstruction of excess testing needed

6th October 2006 at 01:00
Exams are not the be-all and end-all of learning. Assessment should be done by those who know the pupils best - their teachers, says Michael Russell

One of the most celebrated arguments for the existence of God is that which has come to be known as "the watchmaker and the watch", after its use by the 18th-century theologian William Paley.

Paley suggested that, were he to come across a watch lying on the ground, on considering its complexity he would be entitled to deduce that it had been manufactured by an individual. Looking at the world, he then claimed, the same deduction about a first cause or creator for the vastly complex series of structures and organisms that goes to make up our planet was a fair one to make.

Paley did not need, of course, to deconstruct the watch to come to his conclusion. The fact that it was there was enough. But in modern times, we go further than Paley in our desire to ensure that education has an over-riding purpose and that it remains ticking away in order to achieve its goals. For, refusing to trust our own eyes and ears, we insist on taking the educational watch to pieces, just to prove that it remains running.

Exams - or rather exams as we do them - are our act of educational deconstruction and the current surplus of them is becoming very destructive. Yet, despite the fact that more and more people, and especially parents, are waking up to that fact, we maintain a strange dichotomy which does not compute.

On the one hand, we worry about over-pressurising young people. On the other, we study the runes of each year's results as if they were the material of divination and seek to hold politicians to account for each miniscule change in overall performance.

There are two distinct problems in this situation. The first is to do with individual over-examination, something which is now, without doubt, a feature of the Scottish educational system. We may have avoided the worst excesses of primary testing (no thanks to the present administration who would have liked to have followed England in this matter, but dared not when faced with strong professional pressure), but we still expect our young people to jump through too many hoops and, as they grow older, those hoops become more and more important to their future. Little wonder that some cannot cope with the demands upon their mental and physical stamina.

In fact, the best people to asses progress in their charges are teachers themselves, and the basis for moderation in many European countries is the core teaching profession. Moreover, the best way they can undertake that task is to work with their pupils over the long-term, not challenge them to snapshot contests.

Many teachers will tell you of parents who complain about exam pressure, but who come to parents' nights desperate to find out how their child is doing and expecting some form of validation. Within that paradox lies a solution: the teachers themselves are best placed to give not only reassurance but also facts about progress and they should be encouraged to do so - though how that could be done by those who are once more peddling the whole "failing teacher" myth is difficult to see.

Reducing the number of exams and moving the teaching profession on to centre stage, in terms of assessing and charting individual competences, is a job which needs to be done by those with open minds and a determination to raise the status of education in society - not those who use simplistic sound bites.

The second part of this problem is the expectation by parents that public validation is essential to a modern educational system. To most parents and to society at large, it is not just individual but especially collective results which confirm the success of educational policy and practice and, therefore, by extension, the likely success of any child. That view is frequently confirmed by media rows about minor variations in pass rates or about the "hiding" of supposed bad news .

Yet, ask any teacher and he or she will tell you that there is nothing more different than succeeding years in a school and nothing more different than individual children. One set of young people may be, in the majority, quiet and studious; 12 months later and the intake is likely to consist almost wholly of party animals. In any class, one desk can be occupied by an introverted dreamer and the next by someone who may, literally, be in danger of bringing the house down.

A similar variety exists in subject choice and ability. Of course, there is a mean to which all intelligence returns, but the peaks and troughs cannot be predicted. Comparing one set of annual results with the next year's, or the previous year's, therefore, needs to be done with extreme caution.

Perhaps long-term trends can be discerned in terms of achievement but certainly -as with opinion polls - to read too much into too little can lead to, at best, embarrassment and, at worst, fatal error.

So the challenge for educational policy is now to reverse this public belief that national educational statistics have the veracity of sworn statements and should be like lottery numbers, always on the TV and always lucky for lots of punters.

At the same time, parents need to be weaned off the belief that examinations are the be-all and end-all of learning, and that the only assessment which is worth having is done by far-away examiners who do not know their child.

But bringing about those changes would be akin to achieving the Damescene conversion of most of our educational pundits. The system which they have devised, and which they now protect, is focused on the needs, expectations and prejudices of the political establishment, not of each individual child.

Taking the watch to pieces is their favourite task. The tragedy is that they cannot put it - or any of the children damaged by the educational system as it now is - back together again.

Michael Russell is a writer and commentator

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