Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Third Report


The need for national testing

11. Our initial call for evidence for this inquiry asked whether there was a need for a national system of testing in England. In this chapter, we are concerned with the principle of national testing and why it is considered necessary at all. We shall consider in later chapters the purposes for which national tests are used and whether particular instruments of assessment are valid for those purposes.

12. The Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors stated that external testing, in the form of university entrance examinations, was originally used to identify those students who would progress to higher education. As the system evolved, the setting of syllabuses and examinations was delegated to independent examination boards, lightly regulated from the centre. The CIEA continues:

13. In 1987, Kenneth Baker, then Secretary of State for Education, announced that there was to be national testing of children at the ages of seven, eleven and fourteen, leading up to the GCSE examinations at sixteen. In his view, the recently announced National Curriculum would be insufficient to improve school standards by itself without measurement of pupils' progress at regular intervals through national testing. The tests were intended to provide objective information to pupils, parents and teachers about what pupils had learned and this, in turn, would enable teachers to identify pupils needing special assistance.[5] Lord Baker also stated that he wanted test results published and he enshrined this requirement in primary legislation to avoid successor Secretaries of State being "persuaded to go soft" on this aspect of the testing system. He considered that parents wanted access to test result data, but said that publication of results was "anathema to most of the profession", not least because they claimed that test results were not an adequate reflection of the social background of a school, an argument which remains current today. Lord Baker disapproved of this argument, stating that "teachers should not be looking for excuses to explain away poor performance but looking for ways to improve that performance". He insisted on written tests rather than teacher assessments but, when these tests turned out to be "complicated and elaborate", in his words, he was concerned that they would "cause trouble in schools and fail to accomplish [their] objectives". He considered that testing needed to be much simpler.[6]

14. The former Department for Education and Skills told us that, until the introduction of end of Key Stage tests, there were no "objective and consistent performance measures which gave the public confidence about expected standards in primary schools or the intermediary years".[7] The Department considered that National Curriculum assessment, together with 16-19 qualifications, provided an "objective and reliable measure of the standards secured by pupils at crucial stages in their development".[8] David Bell, the Permanent Secretary at the DCSF, told us in evidence:

    I do not accept that we can ever have a system without good and robust national testing and public examinations, the results of which are made available to the public.[9]

15. Ralph Tabberer, Director General of the Schools Directorate at the DCSF, said that the predecessor Department introduced national testing in part because it was felt that the previous system did not provide consistent quality of education across the system. He added that:

    I do not know of any teacher or head teacher who would argue against the proposition that education in our schools has got a lot better and more consistent since we introduced national assessment.[10]

16. This statement introduces a view that there is a causal link between national testing and apparently rising standards in schools. The DfES stated that:

    The benefits brought about by [National Curriculum testing], compared to the time before the accountability of the National Curriculum, have been immense. The aspirations and expectations of pupils and their teachers have been raised. For parents, the benefits have been much better information not only about the progress their own child is making but also about the performance of the school their child attends. And for the education system as a whole, standards of achievement have been put in the spotlight, teachers' efforts have been directed to make a difference and performance has improved. The public has a right to demand such transparency at a time of record investment in education.[11]

17. First, then, national testing is considered necessary as a standardised means of validating a pupil's achievements.[12] Second, accountability, secured through performance indicators derived from the national testing system, is thought to be an important means of driving up standards, leading to confidence in standards amongst users of the education system.

18. Others have agreed that national testing contributes to consistency and comparability of testing and assessment across the country, that it allows for monitoring of standards and that it provides a means of assessing the impact of national policy changes on the education system.[13] At another level, national testing facilitates the development of a shared understanding about learning, which is why a "system-wide approach to the formal recognition and accreditation of learning is a common feature" of many education systems comparable to that in England.[14]

19. Associated with the arguments about certifying attainment and accountability is the notion that all pupils should have equal entitlement to a minimum standard of curriculum and associated tests.[15] This means that schools and local authorities should be operating to certain standards of performance in order that children can benefit from the National Curriculum, although it is less clear that national testing is the best or only way to deliver this outcome.[16] Some have agreed with the Government that national testing has been effective in driving up standards.[17] We shall deal with the issue of standards in detail in Chapter 4. However, for the purposes of the present discussion, it is worth noting that many witnesses have taken issue with the idea that national testing is responsible for driving up performance standards in schools.[18]

20. School-age national testing can be divided into two categories: National Curriculum testing and qualifications, the latter generally taught and administered in the age range 14-19. The rationales given above for the necessity of national testing generally apply to both categories. There is a further set of rationales which apply to qualifications. It has been argued that a national testing system is needed as a means of certifying a level of achievement for the purposes of higher education and employment.[19] Witnesses have argued that a clear and transparent system of national qualifications is the means to ensure that society can have confidence in the quality and standard of those qualifications.[20] Moreover, the NASUWT (National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers) argues that a national framework for the accreditation and recognition of learning is essential to ensure the "international transportability of qualifications". The NASUWT continues:

    The work being undertaken by the European Commission on the European Qualifications Framework depends critically on the existence of consistent national examination and assessment systems against which qualifications originating in other countries can be compared. The maintenance of an effective national qualifications system therefore enables learners to access their labour mobility rights as EU citizens and supports the economic and social life of the UK by facilitating the inward migration of qualified workers.[21]

21. So far, the evidence in relation to a system of national testing has been positive. However, some witnesses have pointed out the drawbacks to national testing, including its potential to distort its original purposes. The Association for Science Education has highlighted the danger that:

    […] monitoring of standards leads to enforced compliance in order to meet targets. This in turn results in a culture that limits innovation and enjoyment of learning.[22]

Mick Brookes, General Secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said that his organisation was in favour of national testing as long as it was "for the right reasons and with the right instruments", otherwise there was a risk that the curriculum would be distorted.[23]

22. These comments aside, we have received little evidence challenging the principle of national testing, although the remainder of this report will be devoted to consideration of the very substantial difficulties of running such a system once it is decided that it is necessary. Whatever the truth about the link between national testing and standards in education, educators accept that accountability of schools is a necessary feature of a modern education system and that national testing has an important part to play.[24] Hampshire County Council has said that:

    Schools readily acknowledge the need to monitor pupil progress, provide regular information to parents and use assessment information evaluatively for school improvement.[25]

Mick Brookes told us in evidence:

    Nobody in our association wants to return to the 1970s when you did not know what the school up the road was doing, let alone a school at the other end of the country.[26]

23. We asked the Minister, Jim Knight, about the proposition of a free market in testing and assessment, free of any government involvement or central regulation. He rejected this proposition on the basis that, in his view, there was not a sufficiently large market in testing and assessment for the market to regulate itself effectively. It appears that most countries do, in fact, have some form of centralised, national testing. The QCA provided us with an international comparative analysis of testing and assessment in 20 countries, setting out whether there is a compulsory assessment system; what its purposes are; which pupils are assessed; when they are assessed; and which subjects are assessed. Some key details from a sample of 10 of these countries, including England, are set out in the Appendix. It is interesting to note that England engages exclusively in full-cohort testing, whereas many other jurisdictions make extensive use of sample testing.[27]

24. In summary, then, the evidence suggests that it is largely uncontroversial that national testing is required for:

  • ascertaining and recognising levels of pupil achievement on a standardised basis;
  • holding schools and teachers to account;
  • assuring the quality of education available to children across the country.

In addition, some have argued that national testing is also needed for:

·  promoting confidence in standards;

·  providing a basis for parental choice; and

·  ascertaining the effects of government policies.

25. We consider that the weight of evidence in favour of the need for a system of national testing is persuasive and we are content that the principle of national testing is sound. Appropriate testing can help to ensure that teachers focus on achievement and often that has meant excellent teaching, which is very welcome.

26. Having accepted the principle of national testing, the remainder of this report will consider some more difficult questions about the structure and operation of the national testing system in England. We will consider the purposes of national testing, what they should be and whether the assessment instruments currently in use are fit for those purposes. We will then discuss performance targets and tables, their uses and consequences for the education system. Amongst these consequences, we identify a number of recurring themes in this inquiry which we discuss in detail, including teaching to the test, narrowing of the taught curriculum and the burden and frequency of testing. Finally, we comment on aspects of some proposals for reform of the testing system: single-level tests, Diplomas and the division of the functions of the QCA.

4   Ev 224 Back

5   Baker, K. (1993). The Turbulent Years: My Life in Politics. London: Faber and Faber, pp192 & 199 Back

6   Ibid. pp199-200 Back

7   Ev 157 Back

8   Ev 157 Back

9   Q327 Back

10   Q395 Back

11   Ev 157 Back

12   See also written evidence from Heading for Inclusion, Alliance for Inclusive Education, para 1(g); Ev 226; written evidence from Doug French, University of Hull, para 1.1 Back

13   Written evidence from Association of Science Education, paras 13-15; written evidence from The Mathematical Association; Ev 246 Back

14   Ev 245 Back

15   Ev 245; Ev 207;  Back

16   Written evidence from Heading for Inclusion, Alliance for Inclusive Education, para 3(e) Back

17   Ev 32; Ev 113; Ev 114; Q4 Back

18   See, for example, Ev 53; Ev 262; Ev 198; Ev 247; Q6; written evidence from Association for Science Education, para 22; written evidence from The Mathematical Association Back

19   Written evidence from Doug French, University of Hull, para 1.1 Back

20   Ev 199; written evidence from The Mathematical Association Back

21   Ev 245 Back

22   Written evidence from Association of Science Education, paras 13-15 Back

23   Q128 Back

24   Written evidence from The Mathematical Association; Ev 262; Q129; Q152; Q165  Back

25   Ev 273 Back

26   Q129 Back

27   Written evidence from the QCA, Annex 5 Back

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