Tests, Lies and High Stakes . . . (Sorting Sheep from Goats)

Reading an article on Michael Rosen’s blog this morning started me thinking about my own schooldays, and how in many ways today’s intellectual climate and mainstream ideas about education, schools and testing haven’t really moved on in this country since the 50’s and 60’s.

This sad and regrettable situation is due almost entirely to the success of the counter-revolution that took place in the UK (and the USA) in response to ‘progressive’ ideas that had begun to emerge after the second world war about children and their learning. Michael Gove is the latest leader of that counter-revolution, and is a self-styled custodian of ‘traditional’ education.

Michael Rosen’s parents, Harold and Connie, were leading members of the progressive movement, and through their work (especially in learning, language and literacy) and the work of others who insisted we should place the individual child at the heart of our system of education, many of us began to see ways in which learning could become more meaningful, relevant, interesting, exciting, involving and personalised. All the things that it hadn’t been when I was a frustrated, though fairly capable, child at school.

So how much has changed for the majority of our children and teachers? How much learning is now genuinely “child-centred” and “personalised”, and how much remains “curriculum-centred” and “test-centred”? These remain relevant and important questions on the day before the current ‘consultation’ on a new National Curriculum comes to an end.

In this country we remain firmly stuck in the past. High stakes tests remain the order of the day, and children are required to study “subjects” whose content is determined by distant grey figures and by voices from the past. We still have exams at 16+ and 18+. We still have tests at 11+, though these days we call them SAT and SPAG (spelling, punctuation and grammar) tests.

Michael Rosen says this in his blog piece:


Lies about spelling, punctuation, grammar test

So, we have the ‘Spag’ test based on a complete misunderstanding (or completely misleading description) of spelling, punctuation and grammar. It was produced between April and June 2011 without any intellectual justification. It has been imposed by a Secretary of State. It will fundamentally alter what will take place in Year 6 classrooms. And there is no evidence that it will help the majority (or even any) children to write better  – by whatever criterion you use for ‘better’ – which of course we can argue about!

So what is it for? What is the Spag test for?

I believe that it has been introduced as yet another way to classify and segregate children, teachers and schools. I do not believe that there is a serious intellectual endeavour going on here. I do not believe that there is a serious, thoughtful attempt to help children write better. I think that this is a serious attempt to ensure that a large number of children are failures. They will not be able to do this stuff. It will be too hard, too confusing for them. For many children who can do it, it may well mean virtually nothing. It will impose rules that are not rules. They will be unable to take the concepts that lie behind the classifications and apply them flexibly and usefully elsewhere. This will be either because the descriptions of language being imposed are so inaccurate as to be useless, or because of the point at which they are in their intellectual and cognitive development.  This is not their fault. It is because ,at the age of 10 and 11, they are at the beginning of being able to juggle abstract ideas. Of course, a small minority will be able to do this. But you don’t devise a major change in education practice for the sake of a small minority. What you do is give teachers the flexibility and conditions of work which will enable them to cater for small minorities of learners of every kind. You do not impose a one-size-fits-all test and programme of study, which will end up penalizing everyone.

The errors made about the validity of the SPAG tests are in some ways similar to the errors that were made about the validity of the 11+ “IQ” tests, which had previously blighted the life chances of so many capable young learners. The tests are based on false assumptions, they give false information about the capabilities of young learners, and they cause many of our children and young people to have a false picture of their abilities.

The point I’d like to make is this. Once upon a time we had tests for children aged eleven which we called the 11+. For a very long time nobody thought to ask why we had those tests, apparently on the grounds that we all agreed that we needed this test to sort out the sheep from the goats – those who would be let into the grammar schools and those who would not.

Suddenly, when someone had the bright idea that all schools should be ‘comprehensive schools’ (i.e. neighbourhood schools catering for children of every ability, interest and aptitude) it became obvious that we didn’t need the divisive test any more, and so we abolished it. Nobody (or hardly anybody) then questioned that the test was no longer necessary. It was so obvious that we even started to think that the 11+ test had been a ‘very bad thing’ all along. Nobody but a complete reactionary and a child-hater could possibly think any differently. How things have now changed, thanks to the counter-revolution.

We’re now back in an age when it’s taken for granted by the majority of parents and also by many teachers that frequent high stakes tests are a Good Thing, even though the more enlightened countries on our planet have shifted to far more progressive and child-centred thinking, and in highly successful countries like Finland it’s been shown that without a single high-stakes test before the age of 18 children can still come out on top of assessments conducted by UNICEF. In fact it’s BECAUSE their system isn’t dominated and perverted by tests and exams that their children and their teachers do so well.

When will we ever learn?

It will happen one day. Not least because we will see more and more children in more and more countries who not only achieve more and learn faster than they do here (partly because they don’t waste time on useless, expensive, inhuman and counter-productive test regimes) we will also start to notice that those other children are happier than ours and enjoy life more – a fact that has also emerged from international UNICEF comparisons [see previous blog post(s)]. And we will finally start to understand, and to CARE.


About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at https://3diassociates.wordpress.com/ or see our website at www.3diassociates.com.
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