Tests 'unreliable', claims ex-adviser

Geraldine Hackett

One of the Government's former advisers is claiming that national tests for seven, 11 and 14-year-olds are not reliable and are leading to pupils being coached in an attempt to boost scores.

Paul Black, professor of science education at King's College, London, believes ministers have destroyed his original blueprint for assessing the national curriculum and imposed a poorer system of short written tests.

As chairman of the Government's Task Group on Assessment and Testing, Professor Black was the chief architect of the 10-level scale for measuring progress across all subjects. His report was accepted by the then Secretary of State for Education, Kenneth Baker, but later vilified by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for subverting her preference for "pencil-and-paper tests".

However, Professor Black claims the kind of tests envisaged by the TGAT have been replaced by ones that that do not provide reliable or valid information about the performance of pupils.

Schools, he says, have now to concentrate on drilling pupils to do well in sets of short test items. The impetus to develop in pupils the skills of problem-solving or of applying their learning to complex tasks is being removed, he says.

In the second annual education lecture at King's College this week, he concludes: "The simplistic notion that all we need is simple short tests now dominates our policy and the evidence is that this will lower our standards of achievement."

Professor Black, who retires from King's College this summer, also attacks the Labour Opposition for failing to present an alternative to the market approach to education promoted by the Conservative Right.

The problem for any government, he says, is that pupils, parents and employers are to be offered test data which are bound to be of limited reliability. The present Government, he claims, has shown no commitment to funding research on the tests in order to publish data on their reliability.

Professor Black proposes an increase in investment in research to monitor the progress of changes in the curriculum and testing. Any new assessment policy should give status to the assessments carried out by teachers, he says.

In addition, Professor Black believes there is a need to build up public understanding of the complexities of teaching and learning.

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