In early October, I attended a debate calling for an end of the “Tyranny of the Test”, a motion supported by Tony Little, recently departed Eton Headmaster, and Tristram Hunt, former shadow education secretary for the Labour Party. Former Wellington Master Sir Anthony Seldon moderated the debate, while Toby Young, founder of the West London Free School, and Daisy Christodoulou, Head of education research at the charity Ark, spoke against the motion and in defence of testing.
It was a rare chance to hear Tony Little speak before he takes off to Dubai to work with GEMS education, so I went to the Emmanuel Centre, located just behind Westminster Abbey, on a beautiful October evening.
To be honest, I did not expect to hear any surprising arguments, especially on the side arguing against tests. Tests put children under pressure and force teachers to narrow down the curriculum in order to avoid consequences associated with low test results. What is more, they test easily quantifiable and simple skills in order to facilitate consistent marking, while failing to capture advanced and complex skills that are seen as particularly necessary in the future. Indeed, these were the main points put forward by Tony Little and Tristram Hunt.
It is interesting that we keep hearing in the media that there is too much emphasis on tests and that children are stressed out because they take too many gruelling exams. When you actually look at it, children in this country hardly take any tests at all. The first formal test takes place in Year 6, at the end of Key Stage 2 in the form of SATS exams. There are some evaluations of children earlier on, but they take place in the classroom based on teacher assessments, so there is no formal test children sit until they are 10 or 11. In most private schools, children do not even take the SATS test, but they usually do the 11+ instead, which is entirely optional for parents (although, of course, your range of options can be severely limited if you opt out of it as a parent).
At the age of 15, children take GCSE exams, and then at age 17 or 18, children take A-Level exams. So, if you look at it closely, there is one exam after 7 years, then another one 5 years later, and then another one 2 years later. It is not exactly a “Tyranny of the Test”, and even if schools do teach toward the test and prepare for them, there seems to be ample time in between to enrich the curriculum and teach a wide range of topics and skills. I actually wonder if the “Tyranny” is only experienced by teachers and headmasters, since from their perspective, every year another cohort of pupils takes either the SATS (for a primary school head or a Year 6 teacher) or the GCSE and A-Level exams (for a secondary school head). They obviously face pressure every year and worry about the consequences they may face in the case of disappointing results.
Of course, you may think it would be great if inspirational teachers weren’t accountable to anyone and could teach as they pleased without having to show measurable progress in their pupils. And in the case of the exceptional teacher, that may well be true. In reality though, there is a huge issue if you do not measure progress in some form. How will you identify those teachers who do not actually teach anything at all? Or the children who are not making progress? Does this not create a lack of transparency, which will likely result in lower educational outcomes?
Daisy Christodoulou made a powerful case for the importance of tests and data, and she was the only speaker backing up her claims with reliable scientific evidence. She showed that if you abolish tests, these need to be replaced by something else, which is usually a subjective teacher evaluation. Even though that sounds lovely in theory, it has been shown that these are far more prone to biases, such as underestimating girls in Maths, underestimating ethnic minorities, overestimating boys’ abilities in Maths, and so on.
Having suffered from these subjective teacher evaluations in my own school career, I was glad she brought this up. In my times, your final grade was a combination of written test results, which only made up 40% of your final mark, and your oral participation in the classroom, which made up 60%. This was designed to encourage children to cooperate and contribute in class, rather than just coasting in the back of the room and then acing exams. The problem was that the subjective part now became more important than your test result, which also meant that your teacher could arbitrarily set your grade if he did not like you or had decided you were average. I remember very well one history teacher who gave me a ‘B” in oral participation, even though I had achieved A*s in all three exams that term. So I got an overall grade of B+, despite having the highest test scores in class. Some other children could obtain an A- even if they scored B’s on the actual tests. When I went to complain about this, he actually said “you are overestimating your own abilities!”, which I thought was really interesting, given that I had consistently scored A*s on the actual exams. I know in a dreamworld all teachers are enthusiastic, lovely, inspirational people who transform children’s lives for the better, and I am sure many set out with that idea initially, but anybody who has gone to school has probably met too many other teachers who did not live up to that ideal.
Of course, some teachers will say they have only lost enthusiasm for their jobs because of the relentless testing and government intervention, but coming from a country where there is as good as no standardised testing, no data, no transparency, I can tell you teachers are no more enthusiastic about their jobs over there, and unfortunately, because there is no data, they have a job for life and no-one even knows who the good and the bad teachers are (except for their own pupils). Even when you pick a school, you have no idea how the children do in terms of exam results when they leave school. You can choose the one that looks most “middle class” or that has an interesting curriculum, but you really wouldn’t be able to get any further information as a prospective parent.
Speakers against the motion also emphasised that the act of taking a test itself enhances learning and helps children to store information in long term memory. Most children and even university students only actually study hard when they have a test coming up, so I can definitely believe that this is true. If there were less tests, maybe the majority of children would study less and therefore learn less?
My disagreement with the “Let’s end the Tyranny of the Test” motion grew even further when they started talking about job markets of the future and skills required in the 21st century. Tristram Hunt brought forward the common claim that “nobody knows what the jobs of the future require” and that group work and emotional intelligence were of paramount importance – speakers for the motion worried that these essential skills would be neglected by schools if they were only focused on Maths and English results. I do agree that social skills are critical, although I would argue that they have always been, but indeed in the past, they may have been marginalised in school curricula, which was a mistake. But I really do not agree that we do not know at all what sort of skills might be useful in a future dominated by modern technology. Here is my guess as to which skills will be very important:
- Basics of spelling, grammar and written expression
- Reading comprehension
- Sciences (Biology, Chemistry, Physics and their interfaces)
- Logical thinking
- Critical thinking
If anything, in the future we will need even more emphasis on Maths and Sciences than in the past, which are areas perfectly suited for objective testing. There is some vague notion that children of the future need to be creative visionaries, but if I was to guess who was going to invent an amazing new technology, it is most likely going to be someone with a very solid knowledge of the basics of Sciences and Engineering to begin with. There is no mystery here. I really doubt anyone who struggles with reading complex passages, basics of Maths or logical thinking will be prepared for the job market of the future, no matter what it looks like. I would even argue that to be a skilled software architect one day, it would be more useful to study Maths, Physics and Latin than to play graphic games or create interactive movies on the ipad, which are these modern tasks many schools like to introduce to their pupils to “prepare them for the 21st century”.
Despite all this, a majority of the audience in the room agreed with the motion “Let’s End the Tyranny of the Test” by the end of the debate. At the same time, most parents still choose schools based on their position in the league tables, which gives me hope that most people actually know test results are meaningful, to some degree.