The tide is turning on tests: will pupils sink or swim?

17th April 2015 at 01:00
Concern as coursework ebbs and exam burden swells

For years, the tide of high-stakes tests and exams has been slowly receding in England's schools.

But from September all that will change. No matter who wins next month's general election, reformed GCSEs and A-levels will be phased in that keep coursework to an absolute minimum. Hundreds of secondaries will also have to put thousands of Year 11s through the new national reference test from 2017.

And last week we learned that the testing burden would grow heavier still under a Conservative government. The party wants pupils who fail to reach the required standard in Year 6 maths and English exams to resit the tests a year later.

The developments have been met with dismay from teaching unions, which are already worried about exam pressure. "The last thing that schools or pupils need is yet more high-stakes testing," said NUT general secretary Christine Blower.

Such concerns go back a long way. The exam-only approach to assessment that used to dominate O- and A-levels was, for decades, seen as unfair to the many hard-working pupils who struggled to do themselves justice under exam conditions.

That sentiment influenced GCSEs introduced in 1986, which allowed English candidates to take 100 per cent coursework qualifications with no exams involved.

Since then, as GCSEs have been reformed, the exam has gradually won back ground. Next academic year, the process will come full circle as pupils start working towards new English language and English literature GCSEs that will be 100 per cent exam assessed.

The trend will sweep across all subjects at A-level and GCSE over the next few years. Coursework will be retained to a limited extent in some subjects, but non-exam assessment has been eradicated wherever possible. This has most recently caused consternation among the scientific establishment, which fears the downgrading of practical work.

Sats story

National curriculum tests have followed a slightly different cycle. They were initiated just as GCSEs moved schools away from exams and were phased in for seven-, 11- and 14-year-olds between 1991 and 1998.

Concerns about fairness were initially less pronounced with the new "Sats", as they were designed to hold schools and not individuals to account. But fears soon grew that the pressure they placed on schools was feeding through to pupils and narrowing their education, as teacher anxiety led to more preparation and more practice tests. This only increased from the late 1990s as Labour's numeracy and literacy strategies demanded better results. But opposition to national tests also rose and, in time, had some effect.

The "no more Sats" nirvana desired by teaching union conference delegates was never quite realised. But external tests for 14-year-olds and seven-year-olds have been completely abolished, as have exams in science and writing for 11-year-olds.

Today, Sats have been reduced to key stage 2 tests in maths and reading. But any celebrations now seem premature. The coalition government may have dropped the external writing test for 11-year-olds, but the Conservative Party, as it demonstrated last week, remains firmly committed to the importance of testing.

The government the party led has also introduced externally assessed spelling and grammar checks for 11-year-olds and a national, externally assessed phonics test for six-year-olds.

The trend has been confirmed with the Tory plan for English and maths resits for children in the first year of secondary school, which would come complete with new school league tables and targets.

`Start trusting teachers'

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union, said the policy "has confused teaching and testing, and [implies] that tests improve teaching".

Shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt has joined the condemnation, but has not committed Labour to reversing the removal of coursework from A-levels and GCSEs.

So it seems that whatever happens in May, the shift back towards exams and testing is likely to continue. The rationale of Ofqual, the exams regulator, is understandable. Its figures suggest that when high-stakes qualifications and teacher assessment are combined there are too many cases where the results cannot be trusted.

But for many that logic is unacceptable. Former chief inspector Sir Mike Tomlinson, who is now serving as the education commissioner for Birmingham, said: "How the hell do you test practical skills through a written assessment? Unless you start trusting teachers the whole damn system is doomed."

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