Multiple choice is no choice at all

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. The new education secretary, Alan Johnson, would do well to take heed when leading headteachers, in both the state and private sectors, warn that the system is breaking down.

Plans to introduce the first mainly multiple choice GCSE (page 1) will do little to convince teachers and school leaders that the Government has got its assessment priorities right. Here's a simple question. What do you do about an overburdened exam system which 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 computerised technology to mark papers cheaply and efficiently?

It doesn't take a genius to work out the Qualification and Curriculum Authority's preferred answer. But is it correct? Ever since the introduction of performance tables in the early Nineties, government has used technology to hold schools to account. Baroness Onora O'Neill, the eminent Cambridge philosopher, believes that distrust of teachers is behind this accountability system and fears it will damage assessment and fundamentally harm education.

Whether the new science GCSE, which also 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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