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Test less and pupils learn more

Do school examinations work? Three disturbing developments suggest they do not. First, employers still complain that school-leavers lack basic skills in literacy, numeracy and science. Second, there are calls to scrap assessed coursework because it is open to cheating. Third, claims by ministers of improved performance are thrown into doubt by the latest Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development analysis of international data on the comparative achievements of school and college leavers.

So, does this mean record A-level grades - being celebrated by young people this week - are worthless? Not in the least. Any faults in the system lie mainly in two places, not with the pupils.

First, there is an overcrowded curriculum, with ill-fitting methods of testing levels for understanding. Every cry of "dumbing down" is met with ministerial promises to make questions tougher for the brightest. Second, the complex system arises from the Government's distrust of professionals - not least teachers. The exam is as much a measure of teaching standards as of pupil performance. So it should be - but not exclusively.

Inevitably, with such a curriculum, teachers will teach to the test. Also, pupils are left skating over the surface with too little time to really understand the subject. In food technology, it is more important for pupils to prove they can "design" a pizza than to cook one.

Exam reforms such as extended essays and assessed coursework came over the past 20 years, with the national curriculum, because the three-hour sudden-death test failed to assess the strengths and achievements of so many young people. With the 14-19 diplomas rapidly approaching in England, and as the Welsh bac gathers momentum, there is a need to look for radical improvements in assessment methods.

The point is not to abandon assessed coursework and other alternative tests but to have fewer of them, to encourage a depth of understanding.

Meanwhile, let us celebrate the real achievements announced this week.

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