Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Third Report



National testing

Systems of national testing have been part of the educational landscape for decades. We consider that a certain amount of national testing at key points in a child's school career is necessary in order to provide a standardised means of measuring educational attainment. However, in recent years the Government has emphasised central control of the education system through testing and associated targets and performance tables, placing test results in a new and more complex context with wide-ranging consequences.
National test results are now used for a wide variety of purposes across many different levels—national, local, institutional and individual. Each of these purposes may be legitimate in its own right, but the question we have asked is whether the current national testing system is a valid means by which to achieve these purposes. We conclude that, in some cases, it is not. In particular, we find that the use of national test results for the purpose of school accountability has resulted in some schools emphasising the maximisation of test results at the expense of a more rounded education for their pupils.
A variety of classroom practices aimed at improving test results has distorted the education of some children, which may leave them unprepared for higher education and employment. We find that 'teaching to the test' and narrowing of the taught curriculum are widespread phenomena in schools, resulting in a disproportionate focus on the 'core' subjects of English, mathematics and science and, in particular, on those aspects of these subjects which are likely to be tested in an examination. Tests, however, can only test a limited range of the skills and activities which are properly part of a rounded education, so that a focus on improving test results compromises teachers' creativity in the classroom and children's access to a balanced curriculum.

The Government's proposals for the new single-level tests may have some positive effects and we approve of the new emphasis on the personalised approach to learning. However, the new regime will continue to use the national tests for the purposes of national monitoring and school accountability. We believe that, without structural modification to address these issues, teaching to the test, narrowing of the taught curriculum and disproportionate focus of resources on pupils on the borderline of targets may continue under the new regime.

Whilst we do not doubt the Government's intention that the National Curriculum should set out "a clear, full and statutory entitlement to learning for all pupils, irrespective of background or ability", we believe that the current system of using a single test for the purposes of measuring pupil attainment, school accountability and national monitoring means that some children receive an education which is focussed too much on those aspects of the curriculum which are subject to national testing.
We conclude that the national testing system should be reformed to decouple these multiple purposes in such a way as to remove from schools the imperative to pursue test results at all costs.

14-19 Diplomas

As the introduction of the new Diplomas approaches, evidence suggests that teachers feel unprepared for the new qualifications and there is anxiety about the limited amount of training they are due to receive. We wonder how schools will collaborate to provide the new curriculum in the competitive environment created by the imperative to show well in performance tables.

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Prepared 13 May 2008