Tests and targets are only tools;Leading Article;Opinion

4th June 1999 at 01:00
This week's row over the key stage 2 tests has generated far more heat than light. Was the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority right to lower the pass mark in English since this year's questions were "significantly harder"?

As anyone who has set an examination paper knows, holding standards constant from year to year is not easy. Yet ministers have staked their futures on meeting targets which depend on these fallible instruments. As a result, an activity which ought simply to be assessing the attainment of children is now highly politicised.

Hence the current reluctance in Government circles to admit that test-setting is an imperfect science, while too many teachers argue that since such measurement cannot be done precisely, it should not even be attempted. Add to the mixture periodic media panics, purporting to unearth various forms of skulduggery, and we have an unhappy spectacle of bad faith and wilful misunderstanding.

All of us, politicians, teachers, parents, journalists and the Great British Public, should be more honest, intelligent and grown-up about the limitations of national testing and target-setting. They perform an important function in making schools more effective and accountable; but they can never be completely watertight - and reputations, whether of teachers, schools or ministers, should not depend on them alone.

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