Timed exercise no test of teaching

THE trouble with tests is that they are, on the whole, timed. While this may be stating the glaringly obvious it is worth reminding ourselves of their nature when we consider whether or not they are the best solution to ensuring standards of numeracy and literacy in beginner teachers. For while most teachers were earning a well-deserved break in half term those on postgraduate certificate in education courses were taking an exam.

In fact that statement is not strictly accurate for many students boycotted the new numeracy tests for teachers, not because they feared they would fail but because they were against them in principle. Why, they argued, should they be made to jump through yet more hoops to prove what their GCSE, A-level, even degree or masters qualifications already demonstrated - that they were numerate.

Those who did take them, however, made another important point - that what these tests were about was less a facility with number and more about speed of calculation. In other words how quickly could you assimilate the information and respond in the required manner? And this did not only apply to the mental arithmetic but to the written section as well where students were asked to wade through a morass of text to find the answer to a poorly-worded question. As one maths student told me, the tests were almost more about comprehension than numbers.

For although they were designed to use data of the kind encountered in a teacher's professional life, the circumstances under which these students were tested is unlikely ever to be replicated. While teachers do have to work to deadlines they are not timed in the same way. Indeed you might, quite rightly, be encouraged not to rush important calculations. Asking a colleague to check your figures would not be cheating, but, rather, a sensible precaution.

Next year's students will, however, face not only a numeracy test but a lieracy one also and here the restrictions of a timed test become, if anything, more perverse. For the current proposal is that there will be little if any examination of the students ability to write. Much of the test will be carried out by multiple-choice questions on grammatical features and comprehension of professional documentation.

Part of the seduction of such a test is that it is, in theory, easy to mark, though most linguists would argue with this notion believing that such a test reduces the ambiguities and complexities of language. Moreover an ability to name the parts of speech is not synonymous with being literate. Many highly literate teachers either never knew or have long since forgotten the technical terminology.

This is not to say that all teachers should not take responsibility for the way in which children write and read. But their ability to do so would be far better assessed by monitoring the way in which they planned for literacy in their lessons and marked pupils' work when they received it. For it is this day-to-day activity, rather than mugging up for a test, that will really demonstrate how effective a teacher they are going to be.

Yet quite apart from the limitations of such a paper, the need for such an examination is not altogether clear. Again, all students must have at least a GCSE equivalent in English before entering the course but more importantly all programmes demand a substantial amount of written coursework which must be passed before qualified teacher status is conferred.

The desire to raise the status of the profession by setting high entry standards is laudable. But we have to ask whether timed tests are the most effective way of achieving this aim or just another political distraction to convince the voters of middle England that education is safe in Labour's hands.

Bethan Marshall is a lecturer at King's College, London

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