Thursday, 30 October 2014

Testing and Education

Some time ago, the following article appeared on my Facebook wall posted by an old school friend. This article riled me, not because of the right wing jibes against the left wingers contained within it, I have found that jibes like this are almost always used to distract from a lack of critical content. There were a few aspects I found disappointing, primarily the complete absence of reference to facts. One of my key frustrations with articles of this kind is that they are taken seriously despite being written by people with little or no involvement in our educational system. Friends I like have taken this article seriously because it is written in a seemingly respected paper.

From a purely logical point of view, this article has a glaringly obvious straw man fallacy. Just because someone believes that testing seven-year-olds is wrong, does not mean that seven-year-olds should not be educated. I appreciate there is an intended element of humour, but it is as ill-placed as it is ill-informed. Ironically, the reason I do not believe in testing seven-year-olds is because of a belief I have that ongoing testing damages our educational system. This belief is based on my own experience of education and from talking to teachers and university lecturers.

Don’t get me wrong, spelling tests, maths tests and other educational tests can be a great way of learning. I learned my times-tables by doing multiplication tests on a regular basis. A-levels and GCSE’s are a way of proving attainment levels to prove students are able to go onto the next level of education. However, I have seen no evidence in any study that proves that testing seven-year-olds improves educational attainment. Nor have I been able to find any evidence that not testing seven-year-olds damages educational attainment.

My objection with ongoing compulsory national testing is that it forces schools into a situation where teaching is almost solely focused on how to pass tests. I would contend that schools have a wider remit than just producing generations of children who can pass tests. For me, schools are also there to create enthusiasm for learning as well as to teach children life skills including the ability to think for themselves. At no point in my working life has the ability to successfully take a test made me a better employee. In many sectors including science and technology I would argue that the ability to think creatively is of a higher value than the ability to take tests successfully.

I share the belief that poor teachers need to be identified. I had a shocking French teacher and as a result I and the majority of classmates who had the same teacher cannot speak a word of French. I still remember the day that I got 2.5 out of 75 on a grammar test and this wasn’t the lowest mark from the children who had been in her class. However, I do not believe that ongoing compulsory national testing is the only way of checking for defective teaching. Indeed this teacher continued for many years regardless of the test results coming from her students.

I am not an expert on education so I recognise that there may be mistakes in what I have written. Regardless of this, I have several questions/points I believe any educational policy should take into account.
  • Educational policies should be critically examined by experts and driven by facts rather than examined through the lens of political ideology by those with no knowledge of educational systems.
  • One of my friends frustrations is that our educational system wants children to “get to a level and no more”. If the point of education is to ensure our children achieve the best they can, this should be the primary consideration of any educational system.
  • If my friends contention that the UK get “some of the worst educational results in the developed world is correct, which I do not believe is true, then any educational system improvements should be based on the most successful educational systems.
  • If testing is proven to hinder educational attainment, alternative methods for proving academic ability and checking teaching quality should be investigated.