Memorandum submitted by Warwick Mansell, Times Educational Supplement reporter and author of "Education by Numbers: the Tyranny of Testing" (Politico's)
I wasn't sure about sending this message to you in a group email, but have decided to do so as I feel strongly about some of the issues which were covered in Monday's session. Teaching to the test is so significant to what is going on in schools in this country, I believe, that I would like to do all I can to help it be debated in all its detail. Although Monday's session did debate it, I want to throw in some more evidence.
One of the questions on Monday, which was raised several times, was whether teaching to the test is a good or a bad thing. This is crucial because it is, I believe, now the dominant mode of teaching in English classrooms. I don't think there was any dispute from the exam boards on Monday about this fact. (It was also implicit in last year's Government document, Making Good Progress, which sets out a new method of testing and suggests that teachers need to put their pupils through a test as soon as they are ready so that the children's progress is recognised by the outside world, ie until the pupil's understanding is tested, it does not really exist) And it is being driven, in large part, by the universally-acknowledged pressures on teachers over results.
But the key issue, and one of the great unanswered questions of our education system, is whether, as many people contend, teaching to the test has serious downsides or whether it is something which is to be accepted and embraced. To put it bluntly, is it a bad or a good thing? The Government's default, unstated (actually ministers never come out with a clear statement one way or another on it) position, and one that, I think was implicit in many of yesterday's responses, is the latter: it is a good thing. But can this really be right: that education simply becomes a matter of preparing children for the next test, more or less from the time they start key stage 2 at seven (or even before), until they get to the end of secondary school at 18? (This is likely to be accentuated, of course, by when-ready testing).
If you look at the detailed evidence on what this involves, I don't think you can possibly say that, in its current form, teaching to the test is a positive phenomenon. The boards on Monday may have talked about how hard they try to avoid making their exams formulaic and predictable, but I'm afraid the evidence of the detail of what is on offer is often to the contrary. In chapter 10 of my book, Education by Numbers: the Tyranny of Testing, I present some of the evidence: an Edexcel GCSE in science which lists 155 "learning outcomes" on which pupils will be tested, such as that they must have the ability to "explain why it is more cost-effective, in terms of energy, to produce a field of wheat rather than a field of beef cows" and "explain that alcohol obtained from sugar cane or sugar beet is a useful biofuel which can be used to reduce the demand for petrol, but large areas of fertile land has to be used". The two other main boards do the same in science. Pupils are being rewarded for dogmatic rule-following, which is accentuated by overly-detailed mark schemes which are also now made public. Given that exams now drive so much of the learning experience for pupils, is that helping to produce the independent thinkers we will surely need in the future? And is being so explicit about what is going to be in the exam really the ideal learning experience for pupils? Or has it just developed because that is what the market (ie teachers under pressure to raise results) wants?
Boards know what their customers, the schools, want, and they have to respond to their needs. Teachers are looking for as much guidance as they can possibly get to help their pupils achieve those all-important grades, and the boards are under huge pressure to give it. But many working within this system have misgivings. Duncan Fraser, head of history and vocational media at Edexcel, told a conference in 2005 that syllabuses were now increasingly being seen not as sets of educational opportunities, but as contracts with teachers: (ie this is what we promise to examine your pupils on). He added: "[This has] consequent effects on the way [the syllabus] is written and, of course, the way it is taught. Teaching to the syllabus, teaching for results , must narrow it and tend to depress the sense of inquiry and the desire to inquire."
Sir Mike Tomlinson's 14-19 inquiry said exam syllabuses "should be reviewed to cover concerns over mechanistic assessment objectives and tasks, which have encouraged 'teaching to the test'." One senior QCA official told me that it was now "utterly predictable" what would appear in, say, GCSE English, adding: "The exam boards have acceded to the notion that [teachers] must know what the children are going to be tested on, so the children do their very best". Finally, senior English teachers and examiners have told me (for more detail, see the book), that exam-focused teaching is now so dominant that often assessment objectives are written on classroom walls. As one teacher put it: "Teachers readily spend entire lessons helping children to analyse assessment criteria....This is wrong, of course, and it explains the fact that English teaching is taking place in an atmosphere of great anxiety: not 'do they understand, enjoy and appreciate Hamlet?' but 'Have they hit assessment objective 5i?'
One sixth former put it this way in 2006: "The only way to achieve a good grade in biology or chemistry is by an in-depth study, not of the subject, but of past exam questions to determine what type of answer is actually deemed 'correct'. The main effect of this is that the entire two-year syllabus is taught to the exams. Most of my chemistry class excelled at chemistry exams, but knew very little about chemistry as a subject. The same was true in biology."
Some will say it was ever thus. But I believe the institutional pressures on most people within this system to raise results more or less come what may are now such that it has developed to a much greater degree (and an extent across the country) than in the past. I would also recommend chapter six of my book, which gives a first person account of my sitting in on two senior examiners giving teachers tricks on how to boost results, to anyone wanting a view of the cynical lengths to which test preparation and the search for shortcuts to improve pass rates can be taken.
This brings us on to the issue which was debated yesterday: the fact that universities now have less of a role in the boards than they used to. In fact, there is very little influence from end users (ie those who rely on exam results to tell them about a school-leaver's skills), such as universities or employers, in the exams process. (An exception may be the new diplomas). The boards are simply serving their customers' needs, giving them a straightforward route to raise results, without anyone within the system really being able to stand up and say: 'that may be the method which will raise the statistics, but is it providing the sort of educational experience we want for pupils, and is providing information we need about how good they are?' All are under such pressure to raise the statistics, that these questions are not being asked nearly enough. Hence organisations such as the Royal Society are left complaining from the outside.
All of this detail, I think, needs to be considered in any debate about teaching to the test. The boards and others would like to use arguments such as there is nothing wrong with teaching to the test, so long as what is tested is important educational material. But the key thing to debate is what the nature of this test preparation actually is. Because this is now so fundamental to the learning experience of children across the country, I think this detail has to be put in the public domain because, at the risk of repetition, it is changing dramatically the character of education in this country.