Standardisation – a testing question

8th May, 2012 5:06 pm

A-levels, GCSEs, GCEs, Highers, Standard Grades, 11-plus, and SATs. Comprehensives, key stages and grammars. Sixth form, primary, secondary and reception. What does it all mean, what is the point, and most importantly, why do several acronyms and how one performs on them determine the course of one’s life?

Each of these acronyms above represent either a standardised test itself, or something that is determined by standardised test. A-levels often the sole factor where one goes to university, GCSEs the sole factor in determining if and where one goes to sixth form, and in several places, one test an the early age of eleven years old, determines the outcome of two more standardised tests by determining the quality of education that one receives.

Ostensibly, the purpose of standardised testing is to determine what educational stream a child should be put into, as well as determining how successful he or she is likely to be. The issue that arises here is one of educational diversity. No two people are exactly alike, and as such, no two people learn in the same way. Some are excellent in a testing situation, while others perform better in a practical assessment than an exam. Education and testing is an issue which the Labour Party has historically been indecisive on, having overseen the implementation of the Tripartite System-whose sole determinant was the 11 plus-to making plans to eliminate state grammar schools.

In opposition, it is incumbent upon the Labour Party to set out a clear, concise and workable education manifesto, especially having seen the effects of such Coalition-driven legislation such as the Academies Bill. The answer is not to do away with standardised testing in its entirety, but it is not practical nor is it fair to not only put an emphasis on testing above all else but also to attempt to stream children at the age of 11 as is done in several local authorities, with in many cases, no chance for reassessment at a later age.

One of the main reasons behind the lack of coherence to the UK education system is the fact that it not only developed asynchronously, but also has never been allowed to fully adjust to changing structural and societal demands, as a result of the myriad of changes which successive governments have implemented, from the partial abolition of the Tripartite System to the introduction of the Academies Bill.

Ultimately, it should not matter whether a student attends a faith school, a community school or a voluntary-aided school. What should matter is that no matter what, every student should have the equality of opportunity that in many cases is available now to those who pass one standardised test at the age of 11. The answer is not necessarily to do away with streaming, but to move from a system of one-time upwards streaming, to one which is fluid and provides linear movement not only at multiple times, but also determined through multiple means.

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  • Quiet_Sceptic

    Perhaps the author could clarify – when referring to streaming are you specifically referring to schools selecting pupils based on test results or the streaming systems which apply within non-selective schools?

  • MonkeyBot5000

    “No two people are exactly alike, and as such, no two people learn in
    the same way. Some are excellent in a testing situation, while others
    perform better in a practical assessment than an exam.”

    No two subjects are the same either and some are much better assessed through practical exams than written exams so we should choose whichever works best. That’s a separate issue from grade inflation.

    There the problem has been that the exams have tended to move towards recalling facts and using multiple choice answers. Whilst students that score highly at that aren’t stupid, there also need to be more open ended questions that give the opportunity for students to demonstrate how they can apply those facts.

    The underlying cause to all this is that everyone demands improvements in education, but there aren’t very many ways to easily measure that. Exam passes seem the obvious solution, but they’re not an objective scale where A is equivalent to 100% educated. If anything less is seen as room for improvement then we’ll end up not being able to distinguish between students whose range of ability hasn’t changed.

    Instead of judging schools by the number of A-grades they get, we should judge them by how many of the students reach or exceed the grades predicted by their SAT scores.

    • Trudge74 as alexwilliamz

      We need to be more honest about the purpose of exams and assessment within the system. Which is to differentitate between young people to allow the next step of the process to select accordingly. However they have become a political football and now are used to represent all manner of things, standards being only one of them. Whether standard of learning or standard of teaching they fail on both counts.

      We try and use these exams as measure of ability but in reality they are a very narrow assessment and as all end of school assessment has narrowed to being the same the different subjects became irrelevent as they end up assessing the same handful of skills. Now if you felt these specific skills (exam technique, following academic procedures etc) were the ones you wanted for say progression to A level or entry to uni, that is fine. But to then extrapolate these things as to be the key to providing a good workforce we are way of course and losing lots of potentially productive and talented young people laong the way.

      In terms of measuring teaching they fail, as they key measure of a teacher has to be about progress and not the level of the student. Snap shots like an exam will never tell you this story.

      A new set of rigorous qualifications needs to be pursued and a wider diploma seems to be a good starting point. How we overcome the danger of the tailing wagging the dog with regard to assessment and exams remains a major problem,  possibly not becoming so fixated by raw exam marks and passes might be a start.
      Improving the standards of training with tough passing requirements and ongoing development of teachers is the way forward. It is far too easy to qualify as a tecaher in this country and that has to stop.

  • jaime taurosangastre candelas

    “…but to move from a system of one-time upwards streaming, to one which is fluid and provides linear movement not only at multiple times, but also determined through multiple means.”

    What in practicality does that actually mean?  It sounds like multiple tests, over many occasions, the results of which mean that a child bounces around schools throughout the education years, with all of the anxiety and social costs of upheaval. Alternatively, to avoid that clearly undesirable situation, that every school is identical and optimised only for the lowest denominator.

    Oh, and the cost of this?

    • Duncan

      There are other alternatives Jaime!  Setting can certainly be limited to a minority of subjects (e.g. Maths) while others can be taught mixed ability without them being “optimised only for the lowest denominator” – there is a skill to teaching mixed ability classes to the benefit of all members and most teachers know it (because most teachers are very skilled professionals).  By setting one or two subjects (and allowing for fluidity through a wholistic appreciation of a student’s level, not on constant testing) one can avoid streaming at all.

      It is currently the case that pupils at school are almost always preparing for a national exam throughout their time at school – this is not conducive to deep understanding or enjoyment of learning, and has the potential to de-skill teachers (or at least to replace educators with coaches).

      The reason why increasingly exams are less “open ended” (although most A Levels still involve a number of significant essays) is not to deliberately inflate grades, but in order to ensure standardisation.  I would much rather teach people to have a good understanding of their subject so that they could answer a range of challenging essays – but to do this well there must be subjectivity in the mark scheme (something I consider to be “well-written” or a “convincing argument” might appear differently to another marker.  As such, marks tend to be allocated on the basis of things that are objective and can be standardised.  A lot of students would actually perform better in a more “free” exam than they do in the straight-jacket of a proscriptive mark scheme.

      • Any process which relies on the skill of teachers plays into the hands of the elitist system you want to avoid: if individual performance is required then naturally you will see some teachers who are better skilled than others, and such a group will naturally tend to be “poached” away from the deprived areas where they could help disadvantaged children and towards richer/private schools where their skills will be rewarded with extra money, privilege, or quality of life.

    • Trudge74 as alexwilliamz

      It does not mean bounce around if it is the means to progression onto the next stage. Also assessment happens all the time anyway, instead of just moving on, we could use the assessment to direct the student to additional study until they have mastered that skill/understanding. Breaking with the traditional progression simply due to your age could lead to a more meaningful and ultimately productive route for all students. With more able students rapidly advancing and then being given an option to access to a broader academic curriculum, while less able students focus their academic energies on the core skills, while accessing other creative or practical courses alongside. This is possible, but requires a massive paradigm shift in how we think about and do education. The cost, could actually be relatively small, there might be some additional staffing costs, and some of the more practical courses would require more resources, but overall it would probably not cost much more than the present system as it would remain fundamentally about a a teacher, a classroom and a group of students.

      • But Jaime’s right though: it may be about a teacher, classroom and students, but how many students?  There is, funnily enough, very little evidence that smaller class sizes are academically more efficient per se, but we have an obsession about them in this country, and as a result no parent would be happy if their child’s class size kept on growing as more and more “non-standard route” kids were added to their child’s class.

        Also how would the transferred child catch up if the syllabus was different?  Extra tuition?  There are only so many hours a child can realistically be expected to study, and so such a move could be counter-productive, for example if their social time was stymied.

        The idea of continuous academic balancing works in theory, but fails in practice, and so until and unless we move to one of those “Star Trek” classes you see Spock studying in (where each child is responding to an individualised lesson plan) an arbitrary cut off is necessary to balance the disruption of tests and accompanying administration, with the purpose of schools, which is teaching.

        I fear that the sad truth we are only realising now is that Grammar schools were in fact not the enemy, and that removing them did more harm than good.

    • MonkeyBot5000

      That’s a false dichotomy and you know it.

      You can regularly test and stream within a school to allow you to tailor the lessons to the students’ ability without having to move them between schools.

      It’s hardly rocket science so I can’t help but think that you’re just trying to set up a strawman.


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