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.

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