Saturday, November 03, 2007

Why testing is undermining education

A number of studies into primary education in England have published reports this week. In one it was claimed that, despite government spending of £500 million on the National Literacy Strategy, reading standards are no better now than they were in the 1950s. Among the other findings are claims that over-testing damages young children and that the current regime of testing, publishing league tables and linking results to funding has been counter-productive.

The government's response is entirely predictable, only accepting the findings of 'independent experts' who produce favourable reports:

But the Government rejected the findings. Lord Adonis, the schools minister, said: "In recent years there have been unambiguous rises in results using standardised tests.
It is only since National Curriculum tests were introduced that there is a solid basis of evidence showing improvement on a consistent basis. These improvements have been validated many times by independent experts." (
from Daily Telegraph report 2 Nov.)


Lord Adonis ignores the fact that the Cambridge Primary Review is independent and that its findings echo the concerns of teachers and parents throughout England.

Here are some observations from my years in the education advisory service, where I worked with teachers, pupils and parents in schools and in the home environment:
  • While the introduction of the National Curriculum resulted in improved standards in some failing schools, I saw an increasing emphasis on core subjects and teacher-led lessons
  • Young children learn best through experience, observation and experimentation. I found that nature walks, collecting items for the science table, play, practical sessions where children try for themselves and talk about what worked and what failed were squeezed out of the timetable because of the amount of time needed for the Literacy and Numeracy strategies. Six year-olds could tell me about prepositions and participles but couldn't describe the wonder of frogspawn and tadpoles.
  • Of the 67 schools on my 'patch' there were about ten which took great pride in being among the highest scoring schools in the country on SATS. I could visit these schools on any day and find every class working towards SATS tests, whether they were in a test year or not. The pupils could tell me exactly what level they were on and how much work they would have to do to improve. Year 6 pupils would be given extra lessons to practise on past papers in test conditions.

  • Talking with pupils and parents revealed that children felt they were under constant pressure to do well and not to let the school down. The SATS rivalry among some parents was just as bad as that among the ballet and sports team parents.
  • Some parents reported children having headaches and sleepless nights because of tests.
  • I was under pressure from the heads of these particular schools to advise the removal of children with special educational needs on the grounds that the school could not meet those needs - what they really meant was that these children would bring down their SATS average.
  • On the whole, the children in schools where SATS were not taken too seriously were happier and, in my opinion, receiving a richer and more varied education.
  • There is no evidence that general standards in the basic skills have improved since the introduction of the national programmes and incentives.

I did not put my own children through the state system; they attended an independent school which does not follow the National Curriculum. They and their peers are well-educated, well-adjusted, hard-working and happy members of society. You might say they would have turned out that way whatever school they had attended because they had caring, involved parents. I would answer PRECISELY! Good education requires the effective co-operation of the school and the parents.

Independent schools do not necessariliy have the best teachers or resources. I have met hundreds of brilliant teachers in the state sector and I have seen resources there that some independent schools would love to have. The difference in the quality of education lies in that word 'independent' - in this case independent of government interference and popular trends. Those schools know what works and they also know that they have the support and co-operation of parents.

My advice to Lord Adonis? Forget your multi-million pound experiments in our children's lives; listen to teachers; listen to parents; advise your colleagues in government to make it possible for parents to be more involved in their children's lives in the early years.

25 comments:

  1. Sorry, but I must ask, what does Lord Adonis look like?

    Can't comment on the content of this post. I hardly recognize the topic since our public schools are run for and by the teachers unions, no recalcitrant teachers or parents and certainly no kids are permitted to interfere with them.

    My advice is for young parents is either home school or private school 'em.

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  2. Here is a picture of Lord Adonis. Don't be too disappointed, e!

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  3. Perhaps he was a beautiful youth! It was actually his intellect rather than his face which made his fortune: a real rags to riches story. He was plain little Andreas Adonis, son of a Greek immigrant, abandoned by his mother and living in care in London when he won a scholarship to a good school. He went on to Oxford and the rest is history.
    What a shame that he doesn't want other disadvantaged children to have the same opportunities!

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  4. I've met him; he's much more engaging than he looks! (His family was Greek Cypriot, hence the name.)

    But as to the policy . . . it's madness. Combine a national curriculum - everyone learning the same thing in more or less the same way - and an obsession with targets, tables and results (or should that be 'outcomes' these days?) and what does that remind you of? Far be it from me to mention the words 'mind control'. Oh dear, I just did.

    Still, I am sure we can all comfort ourselves with the fact that these days teachers are required to 'deliver standards'. Phew, what a relief. For years, I've been thinking that what teachers did was teach. Silly me.

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  5. I should read the previous comments before I write anything, shouldn't I, M? You had already mentioned the Greek connection. Another senior moment, I fear.

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  6. Don't worry, D, I have them all the time!
    I'm really pleased that our old education system allowed this bright boy to make good. The trouble is that to have the same education he had via a scholarship nowadays, one has to be extremely fortunate and live in a rare grammar school area, or have parents who can pay fees. He would never have made it to a baronetcy in one of his target driven comprehensives.

    Another thing that no-one picks up on (hobby horse showing here!) is that we went comprehensive because testing children at 11 years to determine their future was deemed unacceptable. So what happens? They are tested at 7 and 11! Progress?

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  7. What's driving the testing mania? Is there some expectation that every child should end up a genius? Are Britons worried about falling behind the Germans or the Japanese?

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  8. Education is a soft target for politicians and journalists. When they can't think of a vote-catcher or headline they attack educational standards and suggest a new expensive but worthless strategy.

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  9. monix,

    Several of your points seemed to be features not bugs.

    "...I saw an increasing emphasis on core subjects..."

    That sounds good to me. Why is that bad?

    "Six year-olds could tell me about prepositions and participles but couldn't describe the wonder of frogspawn and tadpoles."

    This is bad why? I'm happy to teach my children non-core stuff and I'd personally prefer the schools concentrate on stuff like parts of speech.

    "...ten which took great pride in being among the highest scoring schools in the country on SATS."

    Great pride sounds good. And what's wrong with SATs?

    "Talking with pupils and parents revealed that children felt they were under constant pressure to do well and not to let the school down. The SATS rivalry among some parents was just as bad as that among the ballet and sports team parents."

    Excellent! Rivalry over something scholastic instead of athletic. Sign me up!

    "Some parents reported children having headaches and sleepless nights because of tests."

    You get used to it. Just wait till college.

    "On the whole, the children in schools where SATS were not taken too seriously were happier and, in my opinion, receiving a richer and more varied education."

    How did you measure that? Happiness is an elusive quantity to measure.

    "There is no evidence that general standards in the basic skills have improved since the introduction of the national programmes and incentives."

    But the SAT scores went up? So therefore no basic skills are required for SATs? I guess I'm surprised at that. I took the SATs decades ago and they had reading comprehension and math which I consider to be basic skills. I wonder why they changed the SATs to exclude such things.

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  10. Bret:
    First, I hope it is clear that I am speaking of children in primary schools, aged 5 to 11 years.

    Of course core subjects are important but good teachers (with parental support) have always managed to teach those basic skills within a rich and varied curriculum. There is now an over-emphasis on subjects which will be tested. Coupled with Health and Safety rules, this has resulted in the loss of many of the experience based lessons of the past.

    If you prefer your six year-old to learn definitions by rote, to learning about the world he/she lives in, that's your choice. It wouldn't be mine either as a parent or a teacher.

    I have nothing against pride in achievement but those schools which value their place in league tables above all else tend not to welcome less able children. If the league tables were based on the quality of education provided to all pupils and not on spurious test results it would be a different matter.

    True, happiness cannot be measured but unhappiness makes itself very obvious. If you think it is a good thing to prepare young children for adult life by exposing them to pressure why not go the whole hog and send them down the mines and up the chimneys. I thought we had given that up but maybe it's time for a rethink? What was good enough for your great-great-great grandpa, eh?

    I go back to my example of the independent schools: they do not follow the National Curriculum, the National Literacy Strategy or the National Numeracy Strategy and they are not subjected to SATS and yet they continue to produce better results than the majority of state schools. Why? Small classes, involved and supportive parents and some measure of selection. They recognise that one size does not fit all.

    Today's news is that Britain has the lowest number of 16 to 18 year-olds in education or training in the developed world. Why is that after 30 years of government schemes to improve education? A few suggestions: the comprehensive education system fails a great number of pupils, in particular the bright but non-academic youngsters who would have learned a trade before the new system forced everyone into the academic mould. The £500 million invested in the literacy scheme would have been more effectively invested in reducing class sizes.

    I promise you that teachers want their pupils to succeed -it's called job satisfaction. Let them get on with the job of teaching instead of trying to meet targets which have nothing whatsoever to do with educating young minds.

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  11. monix,

    I may be confused here. When I read the phrase "reading standards are no better now than they were in the 1950s" in your original post, it gave me the (possibly mistaken?) impression that boosting reading standards was important. But from your last comment, "good teachers (with parental support) have always managed to teach those basic skills" seems to imply that students' reading skills were and are just fine and no additional emphasis is needed. Is that what you mean?

    A couple of quick questions.

    You wrote: "they [the independent schools] do not follow the National Curriculum, the National Literacy Strategy or the National Numeracy Strategy and they are not subjected to SATS and yet they continue to produce better results than the majority of state schools."

    How are those results measured and do those measurements take into account all variables such as socio-economic status, parent involvement, IQ, etc.?

    you also wrote: "Let them [the teachers] get on with the job of teaching instead of trying to meet targets which have nothing whatsoever to do with educating young minds."

    I'm still at a loss as to why gaining the knowledge and skills required to do well on a standardized test has "nothing whatsoever to do with educating young minds." It seems to me they are at least vaguely related. If they are not, then why on earth do colleges use the SATs at all? Is there no correlation with doing well on SATs and doing well in college?

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  12. Bret:
    I know my brief post presents an over-simplified view of our educational problems. I'll try for a little more clarity.

    The latest surveys show that reading standards are the same as they were in the 1950s. As a teacher, that doesn't surprise me; what does surprise me is the fact that politicians still believe that there is a formula for turning disaffected children, unsupported childre and those of low ability into fluent readers. The proportion of children failing to acquire basic skills is the same now as in the 1950s despite the governement spending half a billion pounds on its Literacy Strategy, a scheme which every state primary school has to follow.

    The comparative results for pupils in independent and state schools to which I refer are the exam results at the end of secondary education (GCSEs) and sixth form or college (A levels). Here in North Devon fewer than 40% of pupils in the state schools gain 5 grade A to C passes at GCSE, compared with more than 95% in the independent schools.

    Not all pupils in private schools come from wealthy families; most of the schools have scholarships and bursaries for able students. Not all pupils are exceptionally clever; most of the schools take in anyone who can pay the fees. I believe the major factors in producing these results are the small classes (15 compared with 30), parental support and involvement and high expectations of behaviour and effort.

    There are many good state schools but the high achieving schools are generally selective schools, either through entrance exams or because they are situated in strongly middle-class areas.

    SATs in Uk are not the same as your university admission tests. Ours test children at the end of Years 2,6 and 9. Under pressure from parents and teachers, the Year 2 tests are being dropped. A whole industry has grown up around these tests - pre-school toys and books to prepare your toddler for the day she faces her first SATs!

    My objection, a view shared by most educators, is that the curriculum has been narrowed to the content of the tests. If it isn't tested, don't teach it! Children learn test techniques and spend hours practising on past papers; I don't see that as education.

    The 'improved results' cited by the government's experts are not supported by other surveys.

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  13. I agree with the thrust of your argument, monix, although I'm quite sceptical about statements like The latest surveys show that reading standards are the same as they were in the 1950s.. Not that the 50's were a golden age of literacy, but I don't see how the sentence has much meaning without knowing who they are referring to and what they are reading. I'm quite prepared to accept that there are areas where overall standards have improved since then, so why is everyone always so adamant that there were no declines. Anyway, if you talk to university admissions officers or the personnel departments of employers, they tell a very different and quite alarming story, at least over here.

    Duck, the test mania is driven by our more functional attitude to education, which we have come to see as the bare absorption of measurable, quantifiable and marketable skills and knowledge. That's why everyone is always in a panic about English and math, but not history or languages or art. "Training and expanding critical young minds" makes for great speeches, but we really don't believe it anymore. Also, the tests must be universal and be graded by computers. It's pretty hard to test someone on their appreciation of Shakespeare's use of meter or irony through multiple choice questions.

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  14. Peter: I agree there has been decline in some areas, particularly in the arts. My observation (not measurable) tells me that reading comprehension has declined although 'barking at print' has improved because of the literacy strategy, this skews the overall results somewhat.

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  15. So much here.

    I went to a Catholic school in a working class neighborhood of Queens New York through grade 8 (14 years old in 1948) where I learned everything I know (things that came after that were merely filling in some details).

    The very large classes were taught, in the most part, by young Irish nuns who had no trouble teaching us the parts of speech as well as geography, history, arithmetic, science and so on.

    When I got to the public high school, I couldn’t figure it out. Tests were multiple choice!! What the hay? A license to cheat. They prompt your memory and you need merely to indicate the correct answer.

    School after that was a complete breeze.

    I agree with Bret here that there’s no reason kids can’t learn English grammar and the multiplication tables while also enjoying the delights of field trips to study the flora and fauna. Kids’ minds are infinitely expandable.

    However, in the interest of amity, perhaps we should invoke the the ultimate arbitrator.

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  16. peter burnet wrote: '"Training and expanding critical young minds" makes for great speeches, but we really don't believe it anymore.'

    It's not that we (I) don't believe it anymore, it's just that the "expanding" part seems to lead to political indoctrination and the forcing of ideology on children. For example, it's all the rage to show "The Inconvenient Truth" to children multiple times during school. The children come away with mistaken impressions. For example, that the sea level will rise 6 meters in the next hundred years (it's actually 6 meters perhaps eventually over thousands of years maybe).

    I'd much rather have the schools concentrate on objective skills (reading, 'riting, 'rithmetic) than on propaganda that, as a parent, I have to put in a large amount of effort to undo. For example, for the global warming thing, I'm going to start reading Lomborg's "Cool It" to the kids as a counterpoint.

    That's why things like history (and historical sciences) are dangerous because there's huge opportunity for ideological distortions.

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  17. e, The trouble with writing a short post on a huge subject is that I tend to use too much generalisation and over-simplification. Of course I think children should learn their tables and grammar: tables by rote and grammar by usage. I didn't learn about parsing until I was about 12 years old, but I could construct a sentence long before. A six year-old should be able to speak and write correctly and be inspired to read and write, not sit through a 'strategy' lesson - you would need to see the exercises to understand.

    Speaking of Catholic schools, those Irish nuns could keep order in huge classes couldn't they? And we all learned a great deal.

    I keep finding that I contradict myself, or maybe find the exception that proves the rule. I say parental support is essential but Lord Adonis got to the top academically and socially and he had no family support at all. I say class size is important but overcrowded classes (under control, of course!) did us no harm. Perhaps I should leave it all to the government experts!

    BTW I love the cartoon!

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  18. Bret: I can understand your concern over the subjects you describe but surely you don't have a problem with a group of six year-olds growing seeds and bulbs, collecting frogspawn, writing a poem about the clouds and all the stuff that has been thrown out of our primary classes? Young children have a natural sense of awe and wonder which fires their imagination. We could follw Dawkins advice to his daughter and tell children to accept nothing without the evidence to support it but what a dull old world it woud be.

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  19. Peter you’re right about the leftwing propaganda. If I had school age kids now, I simple would go mad if I couldn't get them out. Trying to undo what they learn in school is not only difficult, it's counterproductive. They don’t have enough experience or information to discriminate, so telling them it's okay to believe something as hard to understand as the earth revolves around the sun, but not something far less fantastic like it's being destroyed by global warming caused by greedy capitalists, has to confuse them.

    Get ‘em out of the public schools at all costs.

    m. It's not necessary that you provide the ultimate answer. It's enough that the issue is open to reasoned discourse. One thing we who blog together prove is that we can amicably agree and disagree among a wide range of topics even across wide geographic and cultural distances. It's an honor to part of it. Not a day goes by that I don’t find some amusing comment or post to chuckle over.

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  20. My last comment was truncated. It should have ended ... or think about.

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  21. monix wrote: "...surely you don't have a problem with a group of six year-olds growing seeds and bulbs, collecting frogspawn, writing a poem about the clouds..."

    Surely not.

    "...and all the stuff that has been thrown out of our primary classes?"

    All the stuff? Which stuff? Global warming alarmism stuff? Anti-religion stuff? Anti-capitalism stuff? Anti-white male stuff? Multiculturalism stuff?

    The same opening for discretion that allows writing poems about clouds seems to enable an awful lot of stuff that I wish the schools here didn't teach.

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  22. Bret, I haven't seen anything like that in our schools. I think indifference is the prevalent attitude in UK when it comes to politics, religion, social issues etc. The 'stuff' I refer to is all the learning through fun e.g. instead of children painting a picture of their version of a house with lollipop shaped trees, a picket fence, an over-sized bird etc the national curriculum has them painting a copy of a Van Gogh or 'in the style of' some other master. What does that teach them and why?

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  23. monix wrote: "I haven't seen anything like that in our schools."

    Okay. It sounds like your lower schools (6-11 years old) are pretty devoid of ideology. That must start at the later ages (where the British Judge ruled that Inconvenient Truth could be shown in schools even though it contained scientific errors.)

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  24. Bret, I think that article shows that the idea of showing the film in schools came from the government and not from the schools.

    True, I have far more experience of primary schools than secodaries (57 primary and 10 secondary on my patch) but I haven't been aware of any strong ideologies in schools since the militant 80s. British teachers are too bogged down in national strategies to attend rallies or even to read newspapers any more! (But let's remember I live in the country and haven't worked in a city for nearly twenty years.)

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