Multiple choice is no choice

9th June 2006 at 01:00
We reported concerns last week that the rush to publish textbooks carrying endorsements from exam boards was encouraging "teaching to the test".

Anthony Seldon (see facing page) speaks for many teachers when he argues that the current exam treadmill means that "teaching for exams rather than teaching subjects" has become the norm.

Is there a crisis of confidence in our exam system? Our distinguished columnist argues persuasively that there is. But Jane Davidson, minister for education, lifelong learning and skills, may be able to argue more strongly than her London counterparts that she has taken heed of the warnings of heads that the current system is breaking down. Plans to introduce the first mainly multiple-choice GCSE (page 5) will do little to convince teachers and school leaders that the Westminster government has got its priorities right.

Here is a simple question. What do you do about an overburdened exam system that obliges pupils to sit GCSEs, AS and A-levels in consecutive years? Do you: a) spend even more money providing enough qualified markers to do the job properly, b) do nothing and hope the problem goes away, c) cut back on the number of exams and trust teachers' judgement, d) rely on new technology to mark papers cheaply and efficiently?

It does not take a genius to work out the Qualification and Curriculum Authority's preferred answer. But is it correct? Wales has rejected using performance tables to hold schools to account, and the Assembly government has taken steps to reduce the exams burden by abolishing compulsory key stage tests. It has also shown a commitment to assessment "for" learning, rather than of it.

Whether the new science GCSE, which allows pupils to take up to six re-sits, represents a "dumbing down" of assessment, we leave our readers to judge. The experience of computerised tests in America, where pupils get little chance to show what they know through scripted answers, is far from encouraging. But if we have to tick a box, the answer would be c), and certainly not d).

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