Don't believe the NUT's testing myths

14th November 2003 at 00:00
A tests boycott would be morally wrong. What's more, the case against key stage exams is full of holes, argues David Miliband

For 40 years until the mid-1990s, international studies showed that standards in English primary schools were broadly static. That meant that around half of 11-year-olds went to secondary school unable to read, write andor count to a high standard.

It is to the immense credit of teachers and pupils that since the mid-1990s, the spell has been broken. Significant progress has been achieved. The fact that three-quarters of primary school students now learn to read, write and count well is testimony to better standards of teaching.

Above all, since the introduction of the national literacy and numeracy strategies, best professional practice has increasingly become the norm.

So better teaching has delivered better results. But national tests that set standards, and targets that tackle low expectations, have also played a vital role in making school improvement in England one of the success stories of international education policy.

The decision of the National Union of Teachers' executive to ballot members over a boycott of national tests puts this success at risk. There are two central issues for people to consider: the substance of the case against testing; and the strategy of using industrial action as a way to advance such policy arguments. Both point decisively against a boycott.

There are six myths about testing. First, that it adds nothing to the education process. But tests set national standards. Without them, the evidence of post-war education shows that children in poorer areas are damned by low expectations.

Myth two is that tests limit achievement by confining teaching to pre-set levels. But we know that a third of pupils are now helped to achieve level 5 by age 11, the expected reading age of a 14-year-old and well beyond the alleged "glass ceiling".

Myth three is that testing and creativity are incompatible. But the Office for Standards in Education has shown that schools with the highest standards of achievement combine them with outstanding creativity in teaching and learning. I understand the concern of parents that testing should not overwhelm schooling, but three tests in nine years is not excessive.

Myth four is that tests discriminate against poor children. But it is those schools with the highest proportion of children on free school meals that have made the greatest progress over the past six years.

Tests are not there to meet my targets. They are there to help the 60,000 children who represent the difference between 75 per cent and 85 per cent of 11-year-olds reading, writing and counting well. But this is not some random sample - most of these children are from poor backgrounds.

Abandoning the tests - or boycotting them - would damage their futures. We will not do that. It is our moral purpose to help them succeed.

Myth five is that other countries do not test. But many systems test - for instance, in The Netherlands, in Australia and in France.

Myth six is that the Government refuses to listen. But changes to the tests for seven-year-olds, as a result of dialogue with primary heads, show that we do. Next year we will be piloting a new approach to seven-year-olds'

tests that places greater emphasis on the teacher's own assessment, taking into account the work that children do all year. The trial is designed to establish whether teacher assessment, supported by testing, can deliver robust and valid outcomes. If it is successful it will roll out to all schools in 2005.

But there is also an argument beyond all this. It is whether industrial action by a minority of union members is the right way to decide national policy. I believe profoundly it is not. I welcome serious debate about government policy. I respect alternative points of view. But industrial action brings debate into disrepute.

Industrial action is the opposite of reasoned argument. Choosing to take industrial action instead of joining the debate contradicts values that teachers encourage in pupils. It is the opposite of the kind of democratic citizenship that all of us in education are keen to promote. Industrial action by the NUT will also damage the education of the children they serve. It will rob these children of the chance to have their progress checked.

It will also damage the reputation of teachers, re-awakening memories of strikes in the 1980s. By no stretch of the imagination is the dispute about testing a trade dispute. I hope the union will rethink its mistaken strategy.

English education is on the way up. More teachers, more support staff, higher quality, better results. There are plenty of people who want to run down the professionalism and achievements of English teachers and pupils.

Let us not score an own goal in the drive to prove them wrong.

David Miliband MP is the minister for school standards

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