Tests do not add up to numeracy

9th July 2004 at 01:00
So your correspondent Fiona Reid (TES, 25 June) thinks that the tests for trainee teachers are a good thing. I have some concern for her understanding of what makes good learning. She is confusing the importance of having the relevant skills with the ability to pass tests.

Numeracy, which is my major interest, is not about doing some sums in seconds. I do not mind if someone under pressure thinks that 7 x 8 equals 54, as long as on reflection they have strategies to notice and redeem the error. I am sure the anonymous writer (TES, June 4) could do all the sums, what she was unlikely to be able to do was do the sums in the given time limit. The test does not look at the real skills we need for numeracy.

At this university we take numeracy seriously. Any would-be secondary postgraduate certificate in education student, in non-mathematical subjects, who does not have the equivalent of a GCSE grade C, has to attend a two-week mathematics course.

We do not give tests; we believe in helping students to come to terms with their mathematical issues and to face their fears. And believe me, there are fears. Their stories tear at your heartstrings. They are bright, articulate people who have been humiliated by their experiences in maths classrooms.

They go away from the course with a more positive sense of their ability and the role mathematics can play in their professional lives. This is then destroyed by a totally inappropriate test; a test where time is the most important criterion, not numeracy.

Ms Reid, unfortunately, shares the belief system of our lords and masters; the only thing that is important is that which can be tested. We are destroying maths by this constant focus on timed, written tests. Modular GCSE with 25-minute exams and AS and A2 races in 80 minutes produce students with a superficial knowledge which is quickly forgotten. To think that a PGCE student has gained anything from struggling with an irrelevant test is yet another nail in the mathematics coffin.

Dr Pat Perks

Lecturer, mathematics education School of education University of Birmingham Edgbaston, Birmingham

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