Time to test what is tested

14th March 2003 at 00:00
This week was a pretty average one for the creaking exams and testing system. A headteacher was jailed for cheating, the dearth of examiners threatened summer exams and maths GCSE coursework failed to match the syllabus.

These are just some of the assessment stories surfacing against the strong tide of the Iraq war. The regularity with which bad news emerges from the examinations industry partly reflects its scale. With upwards of 23 million scripts being marked a year, there is simply more scope for error. Then there is the pressure to achieve. Ministers have contributed both to the number of assessments and to rising expectations. But they are responding largely to rising aspirations among those who elect them.

Qualifications, exam procedures and results matter to more people than ever before, whether they are students or the relatives of young hopefuls. That is the real reason assessment features so prominently in the news, especially when widening access threatens those privileged by a more restricted system.

The resulting controversy focuses attention on the reliability of exams - does the standard this year match that of previous years? There is far less scrutiny of validity - are we testing the learning that really matters in the 21st century? Much of what goes on in schools is now dominated by what is tested. So that question has become even more important. And yet it hardly ever gets a public airing. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is invariably referred to as the assessment watchdog, never the curriculum one.

Some of that could change now that the advice the new head of the QCA gives to ministers will be published. It won't help if Ken Boston follows at least one of his predecessors, Nick Tate, who famously avoided offering unwelcome advice. But if the straight-talking Australian lives up to his early promise, there is a chance that governments will find it less easy in future to take hasty or politically-expedient actions against the advice of its curriculum and qualifications authority.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today