Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Third Report


251. We have been clear that the principle of national testing is sound. However, the central message of our Report has been that national testing can be used in inappropriate ways and that this may lead to damaging consequences for the education system and, most particularly, for children. National testing in England is used for a wide range of purposes, including assessment of pupil attainment, teacher and school accountability and national monitoring. Increasingly, claims are being made that these same tests are also suitable for formative and diagnostic purposes and the new single-level tests are being developed explicitly with this aim. The evidence we have received has been quite clear: a single set of tests cannot validly achieve all of these purposes simultaneously. The purposes of testing must be prioritised and an assessment must be made to establish the extent to which the tests meet the requirements of validity and reliability for each of the identified purposes. This information should then be put in the public domain to give context to the decisions which are made on the basis of published test results and associated statistics.

252. The assumption that the current testing system is capable of meeting validly a wide range of different purposes has distorted the education of some children, which may leave them unprepared for higher education and employment. We consider that the over-emphasis on the importance of national tests, which address only a limited part of the National Curriculum and a limited range of children's skills and knowledge, has resulted in a situation in which many teachers feel compelled to focus unduly on those aspects of the curriculum most likely to be tested and on those students most likely to reach the targets specified by the Government. It is possible to achieve excellent test results by teaching the whole curriculum in a balanced and creative manner, without teaching to the test, but this requires considerable confidence on the part of teachers and schools. In the drive towards more demonstrable reliability in results, teacher assessment and the wider skills of the teaching profession have been undervalued.

253. When the results of national tests are published in the form of performance tables, parents and others are presented with a limited view of a school's activities. We consider that the Government should reform the performance tables to include a wider range of measures of school performance, including results from the most recent Ofsted report, and that this information should be presented in a more accessible manner.

254. 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. Additional problems may arise in relation to the transportation of children between different schools, especially in rural areas; and in relation to the practicalities of child protection checks on businesses working with Diploma students. We look forward to receiving from the Government greater clarity on the future direction of Diplomas.

255. In our view, a brighter future for our education system as a whole lies in a recognition of the professional competence of teachers. The Government should accord a much greater prominence to teacher assessment, which is capable of covering the full curriculum and the full range of children's knowledge, skills and competences in a way which can never be achieved by a written, externally-marked test. In any reform of the testing system, priority should explicitly be accorded to the purpose of promoting the learning of children. We have been particularly struck by the support in the evidence for the techniques of Assessment for Learning in this respect. Extensive training and ongoing professional support for teachers would be necessary for the success of such a strategy, including the development of a central bank of diagnostic and formative teaching materials which can be administered informally by teachers in classrooms.

256. We emphasise, however, that assessment instruments designed to promote personalised pupil learning, through Assessment for Learning techniques for example, should not be made a part of the accountability regime. This is where we take issue with the single-level tests. The principle of testing when ready may have some merit but, once that system is used for the purposes of school accountability, the focus on effective pupil learning is lost as schools succumb to the imperatives of accountability through targets and performance tables. Looked at from the other direction, tests designed to prioritise the purposes of school accountability and national monitoring cannot simultaneously be suitable for the promotion of personalised pupil learning except at a very shallow level. Such tests cannot possibly attend to the level of detail necessary for planning a pupil's progress through the curriculum on a daily, weekly or monthly basis.

257. We believe that the Government's reforms of the testing system must take account of these concerns if children are to leave school as rounded, knowledgeable, capable individuals ready to progress to further and higher education and contribute effectively to working life.

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