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The Tyranny of Testing – Is the Backlash Coming?

Monday, March 31, 2014

By Warwick Mansell, freelance education journalist

Image © Jeff Pioquinto, SJ  

 “The system has to change. I don’t really know what the answer is, but I do know we don’t get the best out of our pupils by demoralizing or devaluing their teachers.”

So began a heartfelt blog posting published in March 2014 by a young teacher who has been grappling with what seems to be England’s increasingly suffocating professional-accountability-through-student-assessment regime. 

To an outsider such as me  – I am a journalist and parent whose children have yet to go through compulsory education – it seems as if English schools are in the grip of a kind of insanity. A system which has an internal logic, but begins to look more than a little crazy when you stand back. 

The “system,” then, is results-driven accountability in which schools’ futures, and those of their teachers, are shaped by the performance of their students in assessments, often in a narrow range of academic subjects. 

This concept will be familiar to readers elsewhere; England’s structure has similarities to that which has been used in the United States under the No Child Left Behind Act. We are certainly not alone in having a system which puts pressure on children to do well in assessments. 

But the many ways in which student assessment results have become high-stakes not just for learners but for the institutions educating them still makes England’s system remarkable, and worth trying to understand. 

EDUCATION BY NUMBERS

England’s schools are held to account, first, through a kind of market system, with the performance of each institution’s students in externally-marked English and maths tests at age 11, then in more external exams which pupils take between the ages of 14 and 18, published in Government-overseen “league tables” which parents peruse and use when choosing schools. The schools then succeed or struggle in part according to those choices. 

The achievements of pupils in these assessments are also the key measures used by inspectors who come and visit schools and then write reports on their overall quality. 

Government ministers can now also order the transfer of schools to private – though non-profit – management if results are deemed not good enough. On the other hand, schools with rapidly-improving scores can see their principals given a knighthood, England’s highest honour.

Performance-related pay has now been mandated on the profession, such that – in a development that the teacher with whom this blog started said was sapping his enthusiasm – teachers are often expected to justify their position by demonstrating that pupils are making constant progress when assessed. 

Image © audiolucistore

MY SCHOOL IS WORRIED MORE ABOUT MY GRADES THAN ABOUT ME

This structure of basing how schools and teachers are judged on the performance of their students, usually in external exams, can be justified on the grounds that everybody, surely, should want pupils to achieve their best, especially in those assessments that are central to the accountability regime; English and mathematics. 

The question is whether it is helping to create the kind of educational experience we might want for children. I tweeted a question about this in December, after my wife was told by a friend that her five-year-old had told her he “didn’t like learning” because of the pressure of assessment he was already encountering.

In response, one parent wrote to me at length about her concerns about constant testing as experienced by her child, saying pressure built on schools to demonstrate constant progress with young pupils.

In January, the charity Young Minds, which campaigns on young people’s mental health, published a survey of 2000 11 to 25 year-olds which found that more than half felt failures if they did not achieve good grades. More shockingly, perhaps, 49% agreed with the statement “my school is/was more worried about my grades than about me.”

And if, as many will tell you, this regime is creating stressed-out teachers who believe they can no longer be trusted to do their jobs without worrying about what the next set of exams might bring, and that good people might leave the profession as a result, it must be worrying.

LIFE IN, AND OUT, OF THE EXAM FACTORY

That was certainly one of the themes of focus group meetings with teachers around England last summer, which I attended on behalf of a major science education organization. Meanwhile, in February, a prominent teacher wrote a blog saying she was leaving teaching because: “I see children channelled into becoming automatons, devoid of life and hope, sitting listlessly asking ‘just tell me what I need for the exam’ and I want to weep.” 

When I posted a link to this blog on social media, this was one of the responses: “I am going too…no other job, mortgage to pay but can’t continue the lie. Crying as I read this.”

Also in March, the Guardian newspaper published a report on the pressures of England’s “exam factory” schools, saying “long hours, endless [exam grade] targets, worried children” meant teachers were “quitting in droves.” The piece began with a story of a drama teacher lamenting how she could no longer put on musicals with older students because of the time demands of preparing them for tests and the fact that the drama hall was needed for exams.

It is difficult to change our system, a position about which I hope to write more in my next blog. But I do wonder if a backlash is coming against at least some of the worst problems being generated by this system. If so, it is not before time.

Warwick Mansell is a freelance education journalist, specializing in investigating the examination and testing system and its implications for teaching. His work can be found published in the Guardian and the Times Education Supplement. He is the author of Education by Numbers: The Tyranny of Testing.