Policy and Curriculum


24 May 2008

The debate on testing and assessment gains two new contributors
Two familiar rituals greeted the start of this year’s testing and exam season. One was the onset of some hot weather, so far pretty short lived , and the other was the airing of further debate about the nature and burden of testing in this country, more long lasting. The debate, which has been running in its current form since the launch of last year’s Making Good Progress model of national testing, has now gained two further contributors. One is the recent DCSF Select Committee Report on Testing and Assessment, which unusually for a Report of this nature became the subject of a special Panorama inquiry. And the other and formally launched in the same week as the Select Committee Report came out, is Ofqual, the new independent regulator, and as the Chair proudly proclaimed in her opening address, “the public champion of the learner.” So how does the Select Committee see the issues now and how far will the arrival of a new independent regulator be able to help? In a nutshell, the Committee believe that there’s nothing wrong with the idea behind testing, “we have been clear that the principle of national testing is sound” but that there’s too much of it, it’s being used for too many purposes and it can have if not a damaging effect, certainly a distorting one on the education of some young people. As Barry Sheerman, the Chairman of the Committee, told Panorama “there’s something wrong with the amount of testing and assessment we’re doing, the quality of testing and assessment we’re doing and the unseen consequences of that testing for the whole school culture.” It may not be a new message but based on an inquiry that ran for nearly five months, heard from some of the leading lights in the field amongst its 20 witnesses and received nearly 50 written pieces of evidence, it’s a pretty powerful one. The Government is certainly listening but so far has shown little evidence that it will make significant changes. “We don’t agree that testing distorts pupils’ education” was the line taken by Jim Knight, the Schools Minister. At present, Government is pinning its hopes on a reduction in the assessment of national qualifications like A levels and some reduction in the burden of testing through its pilot single – level tests. The latter in particular seem unlikely to lift the burden in the short term. As a when - ready model, they run the danger, as the Committee noted, of making it seem as if tests are continuous, “ever present in the atmosphere of a school.” The core of the problem is accountability; both major Parties believe in it but as a principle it needs to feed off regular monitoring of progress and reporting of results, hence the concerns about burdens and teaching to the test. As Graham Stuart, a Conservative member on the Committee told a recent Westminster Education Forum on Testing, “No – one is going to remove testing but we can do

less and I would certainly hope that an incoming Conservative Government, if there was one, would look to do precisely that.” The Committee took a lot of evidence on the issue of accountability with most witnesses arguing for its decoupling from requirements for testing and learning. The gains could be enormous: a reduction in teaching to the test; an opportunity to focus more on the wider curriculum rather than just the tested subjects; less time spent on test preparation; more proportionate forms of accountability. The issue of preparation time shows just how wide the gulf is between political expectation and delivery reality. In its evidence for example, QCA argued that primary schools in particular invest heavily in preparing for Key Stage 2 tests: “68% of primary schools employ additional staff; 78% set additional homework, more than 80% have revision classes; and in the second half of the spring term, 70% of schools spend more than three hours per week on test preparation.” Yet, the Minister told the Committee, “no pupil spends more than 0.2% of their time taking tests” and “I flatly reject the argument that there is too much testing.” The answer for most witnesses was greater use of sampling. The General Teaching Council (GTC) and the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) both favouring cohort testing “using a matrix test structure to allow for multiple tests across the sample to widen the breadth of the curriculum being tested” while Ken Boston of QCA argued for a range of test instruments including cohort sampling. The Committee agreed; “we are persuaded that the current system of national tests should be reformed in order to decouple the multiple purposes of measuring pupil attainment, school and teacher accountability and national monitoring.” Accountability and the purposes of national testing were of course just some of the detailed issues that the Committee reported on. Others included: performance targets and tables, “we recommend that the Government reforms the performance tables to include a wider range of measures including those from the Ofsted report;” the consequences of reliance on high – stakes testing, “we believe that teaching to the test and this inappropriate focus on test results may leave young people unprepared for higher education and employment;” and those hotly debated single – level tests, “we recommend that if single – level tests are introduced, they are used for summative purposes only.” So how far can the new independent regulator, Ofqual, help in any of these areas? In her launch address, Kathleen Tattersall, Ofqual’s Chair, said that it would try “to shine a light on the system so that there is a better understanding on all our parts of what the system can do and what the limitations are so that we can match expectations to the system’s capacity to deliver.” While this may be welcome, others may be looking for more. Ed Balls, for instance, has asked Ofqual to look at two pretty knotty areas, namely the single – level tests and Diplomas. Professor Peter Tymms, one of the expert witnesses to the Select Committee, called for an emphasis on “the monitoring and maintenance of standards over time,” while Mike Baker writing in the Guardian, called for a regulator that could create waves; “the head of Ofqual, like the head of Ofsted, should be someone who relishes causing a public fuss when things are not as they should be.” Ofqual has already announced a health check of the system, “on the reliability of tests, exams and teacher assessments.” It will appoint an expert panel shortly. Agreeing on the cure might be more tricky.
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Latest chapter in the testing and assessment debate May 2008

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