No Celsius scale

6th January 1995 at 00:00
All bad, as well as good, things do come to an end eventually. The two-year-old boycott of national curriculum testing, which has been a mixture of the two, is now edging towards an acrimonious conclusion. But then strikes and boycotts nearly always do.

As Doug McAvoy, the NUT's general secretary, says elsewhere on this page, his union can take credit from its stout resistance to some of the absurdities that the testing programme inflicted on both teachers and pupils. Much has, however, changed even since the last round of tests. There is a new Secretary of State who, unlike her predecessor, believes that dissenters should be consulted rather than insulted. We have a new Labour leadership that, despite various equivocations, seems almost as enthusiastic about testing and tabling as the Conservatives. There is a feeling in most - if not all - staffrooms that the tests have become less onerous. There is also the promise that the load will be lightened by the conscription of an army of external markers (at key stages 2 and 3) and supply staff (key stage 1). And this carrot has been combined with a stick in the form of a legal obligation on heads to ensure that the test papers are handed over to the external markers.

Mr McAvoy will not be terribly impressed by the promise to reduce the workload. But the NUT leadership will be concerned about legal threats, the diminishing support for the boycott from parents as well as teachers, and the possibility of membership defections if the ban is reimposed.

For all these reasons it would probably be wise for the NUT to end its boycott now even if it is questionable whether the union has wrung a significant concession out of Gillian Shephard. It would also be sensible for the Government to ensure that the forthcoming review is a thorough one for although the 1995 tests will be better than their naively over-ambitious predecessors some fundamental questions have yet to be properly explored.

One of the central issues is whether it is realistic to expect one set of tests to do so many different tasks: charting cognitive development, diagnosing pupils' individual problems, reporting to parents and monitoring national standards.

Teachers also need to be reassured that their classroom assessments have the same status as external tests. Sir Ron Dearing has insisted that they do, but the Government's decision to abandon all statutory moderation of teacher assessments at key stage 1 and the withdrawal of central funding for the associated training of teachers and moderators suggest otherwise. Moreover, this move can only draw further complaints about the lack of a standardised approach by those who operate and monitor the tests. There is also well-founded concern over the standardisation of the national curriculum levels (does level 5 at key stage 2 equate to level 5 at key stage 3?) and of the tests themselves. One of the academics who have been critical of national curriculum testing and assessment, Alastair Pollitt of Cambridge University, has pointed out that we are in danger of setting in place a system of tests that behave like thermometers, all pretending to measure on the Celsius scale, but which actually each have their own freezing point and their own idea of what constitutes a nice summer's day.

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