Different tests reveal different pictures

29th November 1996 at 00:00
I am concerned at the knee-jerk reaction when each new set of test results is published.

The findings of the Third International Maths and Science Study were published last week. I would argue that the statistics tell us more about the tests themselves than they do about pupil learning. Britain may have come 19th out of 20 in that test, but I am sure that different tests would have given different pictures.

If the TIMSS had assessed the ability to apply knowledge in unfamiliar situations, the ability to describe, reason and analyse situations using a variety of resources (including computers), perhaps we would be looking at a different set of results. It is, however, very difficult to find a way of assessing these other applications objectively, so we do not bother. We read constantly about generalisations that are based on an analysis of only the areas of mathematics that assess objectively.

Some critics seem to be taking the TIMSS as the benchmark and are stressing the need to go back to basics, delivering the mathematics curriculum in the skills-based way of 50 years ago. Over a period of years, we may climb the league table of international surveys and, who knows, we may even give the Hungarians a run for their money.

However, if we are looking ahead to another 20 years of technological innovations at the exponential rate of progress shown in the past 20 years, will we be best served by turning back the clock or should we have the vision to try to find ways of improving and measuring the depth of pupils' learning, rather than merely their ability to recall facts delivered to them?

The tests have their place, but we must understand their limitations and avoid short-term political decisions that may damage our chances in the next 50 years. Yes, the basic skills need to be improved; but that is only one of the issues.

At the very least let us improve and broaden the debate on standards in mathematics away from just a crude analysis of narrow, but measurable, data.

This is, I fear, wishful thinking as the statistics generated are easily manipulated by politicians who, at times like this, are more interested in political capital than whether they give us a fair reflection of learning standards.

T G CRAWSHAW Head of mathematics St George's College of Technology Sleaford Lincolnshire

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