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
Over the years, as more students stayed in education
and took examinations and as competition for places and jobs intensified,
the demand for greater comparability across examinations grew
and equal access to curriculum and qualifications became the norm.
The introduction of National Criteria for GCSE and a National
Curriculum and associated assessment arrangements in the 1980s
resulted in the centralised system we now have.
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.
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
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".
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".
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.
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
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.
17. First, then, national testing is considered necessary
as a standardised means of validating a pupil's achievements.
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.
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.
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
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. Some have
agreed with the Government that national testing has been effective
in driving up standards.
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.
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
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
24. In summary, then, the evidence suggests that
it is largely uncontroversial that national testing is required
- 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:
confidence in standards;
a basis for parental choice; and
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.