Assessment overload `puts sustained learning at risk', says committee
Teachers' criticisms of England's testing regime were vindicated this week when an influential committee of MPs called for national tests to be scrapped in their current form.
They urged ministers to conduct a thorough review into the extent of teaching to the test, warning that high-stakes testing was "distorting the educational experience of many learners", and that some schools have deployed inappropriate methods to improve results, including excessive coaching.
The report, by the cross-party children, schools and families committee, was greeted with a delighted `we told you so' response from teachers' representatives.
The BBC's documentary series Panorama added to the roar of complaints against excessive testing this week. But there was little sign that the MPs' findings would make any difference to ministers' attitudes.
Jim Knight, schools minister, said they would respond in full to the committee's report in due course.
But in a statement, he highlighted one conclusion from the committee which ministers welcomed - that "the principle of national testing is sound".
"We want all children to have a well-rounded, enjoyable time at school, with a balanced curriculum," Mr Knight said. "We don't agree that testing distorts pupils' education."
The select committee's 105-page report followed a year-long inquiry in which it heard evidence from teachers' groups and assessment experts.
It said: "We have received substantial evidence that teaching to the test - to an extent which narrows the curriculum and puts sustained learning at risk - is widespread." This, it said, led to "a disproportionate focus on the `core' subjects of English, mathematics and science and, in particular, on those aspects of these subjects which are likely to be tested".
It added: "Tests, however, can only test a limited range of the skills and activities which are properly part of a rounded education, so that a focus on improving test results compromises teachers' creativity and children's access to a broad curriculum."
The Government, while seeking to improve teaching practice, failed to accept the extent of test practice and how it could harm learning, said the report.
Giving evidence to the committee, Mr Knight said: "The vast swathe of teachers and schools . use tests appropriately."
But the report said he could produce no statistics on the extent of test coaching, "which we find surprising considering the seriousness of the issues at stake and the strength of his assertions, and those of his officials, that teaching to the test is not a problem".
Schooling focused excessively on exams could leave young people unprepared for higher education and employment, said the committee. "Teaching to the test means that pupils may not retain, or may not even possess in the first place, the skills which are supposedly evidenced by their test results," the report said.
It added: "We recommend that the Government reconsiders the evidence on teaching to the test and that it commissions systematic and wide-ranging research to discover the nature and full extent of the problem."
The committee also said the current testing regime should not be used for school-by-school accountability. But the report has no specific recommendations on what should be put in its place.
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority submitted evidence listing 22 purposes to which test and exam data were now being put. The committee said it was unconvinced that it could fulfil all these goals effectively.
Ministers are piloting tests, set at a single national curriculum level, to be taken whenever a pupil is deemed to be ready to take them, as a possible replacement for "Sats" tests.
But the committee warned that these were unlikely to address the negative effects of testing if they were linked to league tables and progression targets, as planned.
It also said ministers should come clean over whether they want eventually to scrap A-levels and GCSEs in favour of diplomas, as some suspect.
Christine Blower, the National Union of Teachers' general secretary, said the Government was now isolated in defending its tests.
John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "External examinations and testing cannot possibly hold up under the weight of expectation placed upon them."
THE MAIN FINDINGS
- The principle of having a national testing system is "sound".
- But the drive to meet government test and exam targets has too often become the goal of education, and high-stakes testing is "distorting the educational experience of many learners".
- Some schools have deployed "inappropriate methods" to improve results.
- Test data do not necessarily provide an accurate picture of school and teacher performance, or pupils' deeper understanding.
- A small sample of pupils should be tested each year to monitor national standards.