One parent's case against testing

30th August 1996 at 01:00
When my daughter did her Standard grades last year, she sat in the examination room for 22 hours. Folio, investigation, oral and performance work took a further 34 hours. Following the assessments and consideration of appeals, she received 23 separate grades profiling her performance. The exams alone were spread over four weeks, during which she attended no normal classes. Every assessment she entered for was voluntary, although the value of these assessments and qualifications is so widely recognised that almost all pupils entered for as many Standard grades as they could.

The contrast with national testing could not be more stark. A couple of tests lasting a couple of hours, of dubious validity and little educational value, purport to assess pupils in the 5-14 age bracket. Teachers, who use a wide variety of assessment instruments every day in their classes, have scorned these politically motivated intrusions. They are cumbersome, they label children without giving new or useful information and their purpose is to categorise children and schools and set them against each other.

It is not surprising that Conservatives wish to introduce national tests, since their philosophy is that everything would work better if it were run as a business. Businesses need accounts sheets, and that is what national tests seem to provide.

More surprising is the support which a few Labour politicians give. Naturally, members of education committees wish to have a clear picture of what is happening in schools, since that is their area of responsibility. They find the current situation hard to come to terms with, demanding as it does an understanding of children as individuals, of the curriculum, learning theory, management and assessment.

How much easier it would be to reduce it all to a single index of performance, like the interest rate on a savings account. "Good" schools could then be distinguished from "poor" schools, and appropriate measures taken.

Perhaps the best way to show the flaw in this ideal picture is by way of an analogy. Consider the second-hand car market. Apart from obvious indicators of value, such as age and model, the purchaser is interested in what condition a car is in, which depends in turn on how well the car has been maintained. It is my guess that a car that is well looked after will have, among other things, tyres at the correct pressure.

Indeed, if a big enough survey could be done, I am sure it would turn out that there is a high correlation between accuracy of tyre pressures and how well looked after a car is.

So let's stop looking under the bonnet and just take the tyre pressures. It is quick and easy, gives a single figure instead of a lot of messy detail and is easy to understand. Well, the correlation may be good, but it is not good enough to risk all our money on. As soon as sellers realised this was going on they would stop bothering about the general condition of the car and simply pump up the tyres.

Similarly, national tests concentrate on a couple of subjects only. This does not yield a full profile of the candidate: achievements in music, physical education, self-confidence and a host of other areas are not assessed. Worse, many vital areas of education will be neglected in order to concentrate on test scores. Only exceptionally confident and thoughtful headteachers will be able to resist this trend.

Even in those subjects which are assessed, testing tries to give a quick assessment, instead of the fuller picture that a folio of work or a jotter full of answers can paint. Like taking tyre pressures alone when you are buying a car, it is a cheap and almost worthless exercise which offers the seductive reward of a simple and easy to understand result. Those who care about education, which presumably includes councillors who accept election to education committees, should beware of the quick fix. Children deserve more.

Tests which are important are also stressful. Here we come to the other side of the case against tests: children pick up signals very quickly. If the Government gets its way and introduces what will doubtless be referred to by the media as the new "11-plus", pupils will be under immense stress. On top of starting a new school, away from friends and familiar surroundings, they will know that their school career will depend on their performance in the tests. Setting or streaming will follow: that at least is the hope of the Education Minister.

While leaving exams have to be external, there is no need to subject children of 12 to the gut-wrenching stress of formal examinations. I still remember the tears when my class were given the results of our test at the end of primary school, back in the 1960s. We knew what they meant. I do not want any part in bringing back that awful system.

Graham Dane is a secondary school teacher in Edinburgh. The views expressed are personal.

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