UK is a world leader… in ‘teaching to the test’

18th December 2015 at 00:00
Study warns inequality is fuelling high-stakes exams and hampering teaching

UK schools are among the worst in the developed world for “teaching to the test”, a new analysis of the effect of income inequality on education suggests.

According to the study by researchers at the University of Oxford, Britain and the US are the worst culprits for educating students just to pass an exam. The statistics were taken from the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) rankings and the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC), both of which are administered by the OECD.

The results show that while UK 15-year-olds are close to average for maths, literacy and problem-solving, performance drops significantly among 16- to 24-year-olds.

This suggests that learning ahead of exams has been superficial.

The research looks into the correlation between a country’s economic inequality and its scores in international tests. The findings suggest that the greater the gap between rich and poor, the higher the chance of young people forgetting what they have learned.

Lead researcher Professor Danny Dorling said that in more competitive societies, exam results mattered “far more”, so there was more pressure to achieve certain grades.

‘Strong correlation’

The study looked at the 25 wealthiest countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and compared the maths, literacy and problem-solving scores of 15-year-olds with those of 16- to 24-year-olds (see graphic, right).

“The correlation between inequality levels and mathematical, literacy and problemsolving ability appears to be significantly stronger when older respondents are considered,” the report says. “This is interesting because it hints at the possibility that more unequal countries’ education systems fail to foster long-term understanding to the same extent that education in more equal countries appears to have a longer lasting effect on young peoples’ ability.”

Short-term focus

According to Professor Dorling, a social geographer, the findings suggest that UK schools focus on short-term knowledge acquisition to help pupils to pass tests, and this knowledge is then quickly forgotten.

“In more competitive societies, such as the US and UK, exam results matter far more. So the pressure from parents and from schools to get children a C grade rather than a D, or an A* rather than an A, is very large,” he told TES. “In both these countries people try to maximise exam results because young people are entering a labour market where they are going to be paid enormous differences between the minimum wage and the top end.”

In countries where salaries were more equal, there was less pressure to get certain test results, which enabled teachers to teach better, the academic argued.

“If we had a situation like Japan, where the most disadvantaged people are paid twice as much [as the UK] and you can actually live off a job as a cleaner, parents wouldn’t be so worried about exam results. Parents here are, probably rightly, paranoid about exam results because they mean so much.”

Professor Dorling, author of Inequality and the 1%, said he had not tested his theory that inequality exacerbated teaching to the test, but that it was plausible. However, other explanations were possible, he added.

The countries that came out best in terms of young people maintaining their academic ability after the age of 15 were those associated with high performance in Pisa, including Finland, South Korea and Japan.

Kristopher Boulton, a teacher at a highperforming secondary school in London, said that all schools taught to the test, but the more challenging a school’s intake the more likely it was that it would prep its students for exams.

“The system is geared towards schools getting students over the C grade boundary as quickly as they can,” Mr Boulton said. “That can mean preparing them to look out for common questions that come up every year. It is bad because schools should be trying to impart as broad a knowledge base to their students as possible.”

After the publication of the most recent Pisa results from 2012, the OECD stated that a child’s future earning power was closely related to that of their parents in countries with higher income inequality, such as Italy, the UK and the US. “This suggests that socio-economic background plays a strong role in the development of children’s abilities in these countries,” the organisation added.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “This government has reduced the number of tests children take – for example, by scrapping modules and January assessments as part of our reforms to GCSEs and A-levels – and is making sure they are only tested when they are truly ready.”


Political pressure

Teachers have long complained that UK education policy relies too heavily on testing to hold schools to account, which fuels the need for teaching pupils to pass those tests.

Last month, education secretary Nicky Morgan said she would review a pledge to look again at using national tests to assess seven-year-olds. This follows a move to bring in “resit tests” in Year 7 for any child who failed to reach the required level in their key stage 2 tests.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL teaching union, warns that students in the UK, particularly England, are among the most tested in the world, and that the amount of assessment is “exponentially increasing”.

“The tests are very high stakes and are used for a range of purposes such as student, teacher, school and system performance,” Dr Bousted says. “It’s not surprising that it becomes the focus.

“We should be focusing on lifelong learning. Instead we forget what we are taught, and we have low take-up of education and training after compulsory schooling, which massively affects our productivity as a country.”

A headteacher’s view

John Tomsett, headteacher of Huntington School in York, has written extensively on teaching to the test, and argues that the exam system forces schools to do so.

“With the emphasis on terminal examinations, it is quite obvious that schools will prep students for the test,” he says. “Regular testing helps embed learning – that is clear from the evidence. However, with so much riding on the final examinations, teachers and students would be foolish not to spend significant lesson time practising how to answer examination questions, rather than learning the subject beyond the specification.”

A shortage of exam markers has led to mark schemes becoming highly prescriptive, he adds: “My worry is that if you have people marking who are not subject experts, they rely on a detailed mark scheme to help them mark accurately. They then cannot use professional judgement to reward students who answer with absolutely relevant knowledge and understanding that goes beyond the mark scheme. This exacerbates the tendency to teach to the test.”

Testing in the US

Testing is one of the most controversial issues in the US education system, where tests and exams have become the single biggest measure to hold schools and teachers to account. President Barack Obama introduced new legislation last week to reduce the amount of testing in class, saying that it was “taking the joy out of teaching and learning”. His words were welcomed by schools, but Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s head of education, dismissed the notion that American students are over-tested.

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