Saturday 10 May 2008

Testing times for tests

A lot of nonsense is talked about schools tests. And if today's Guardian is to be believed, we are in for a lot more over the coming week. Before we get carried away with it all, let's remember a few facts.

First, the only compulsory national tests are those taken at 11 and 14 in English, Maths and Science. Those taken at seven are teacher assessments in much less controlled environments. Everything else is voluntary or has alternatives (including GCSEs, AS levels and A2 levels). Second, without tests, we would have no proper independent accountability for schools. None. What the teaching unions want is to mark tests within schools, making them worthless for such purposes. We must retain this independence. Third, because we have comparable test results - and GCSEs and A levels - we are able to give schools a proper sense of how they and their pupils compare with other similar schools, one of the most important drivers for improvement.

And finally, this notion that we are 'the most tested in the world' rests on an assumption that tests don't exist in other countries. They do. The main difference, as I discovered talking to Finnish primary teachers is that their compulsory annual tests are set by the city of Helsinki not nationally; the same is true in many American cities and states, a point of real difficulty with their No Child Left Behind programme. if the pilots of the Government's progress tests prove that the existing system is better and easier to administer, we should stick with what we have. Of course, it is worth looking at whether we need quite so many modular exams at GCSE and A level - there should be a premium on synoptic assessment - but the idea that we should do away with independent external testing should be resisted at all costs.

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