Wednesday, 26 September 2007

An end to dumbing down debates?

Ed Balls is announcing today that he intends to split the functions of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, so that testing and exam regulation are 'independent' of ministers and answerable to Parliament. This is not a new idea, but it is doubtful it will make a whit of difference to the annual dumbing down debate each August. After all, the competitive exam boards will remain, and they have no new incentive to lift standards (a single exam board would be better). In itself the split is not necessarily a bad idea, but there is a real danger that without ministerial pressure to continue regular externally marked testing of 11 and 14 year-olds (such tests for 7 year olds have already been largely abandoned) the testing system will be effectively passed over to schools. The unions have long lobbied for teachers to mark their own tests, as now happens at 7 where Balls is now rightly taking remedial action to deal with a slip in standards since. National testing could be replaced by sampling, fine for statisticians, but useless for measuring the performance of individual schools or stretching individual pupils. The legislation to split QCA must make very clear that national externally marked tests for all are here to stay, and it is the responsibility and duty of the new body to ensure this happens. Otherwise the danger is that this measure will have the opposite effect from that intended: it could lead to some real dumbing down of our whole system of accountability.

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