The Attainment Challenge: What is the purpose of testing?

Forty-three years ago, August 1973, I was a fresh-faced probationer, attending my first in-service day of my first teaching post in one of Edinburgh’s newly created comprehensive schools.

The first agenda item, after the introduction of new staff, was the Higher and O grade results. The rigorous discussion which followed was about how to improve these.

The “raising attainment” agenda then, despite the protestations of its loudest advocates, is nothing new. Committed teachers have always sought to improve educational outcomes, including external exam results and qualifications, for all their learners.

On becoming education secretary, John Swinney was explicit about Scottish educational priorities: “Closing the attainment gap and improving attainment across education in Scotland – in other words the pursuit of equity and excellence – will be the driving purpose of my tenure as education secretary.”

The Scottish government is “committed to closing the gap between the educational attainment of young people in our most and least deprived areas”.

He also promised a “revolution” in transparency on school performance with the ParentZone website featuring additional information on every school including attendance rates, children’s progress and grades from school inspections.

At first sight, the objective of “closing the gap” is so patently essential that it is not questioned. Figures from 2014 showed that in Edinburgh 22.9 per cent of children living the most affluent fifth of communities attained three or more Highers in S5 while only 1.1 per cent from the poorest fifth did so.

Although Edinburgh had the greatest differential, the pattern of pupils from the most affluent areas substantially out-performing pupils from the least affluent communities was universal.

The tone of educational debate in Scotland around the attainment agenda is certainly different from England, where the rhetoric of “failing schools”, “worst-performing schools”, “erosion of excellence” and “tougher minimum standards”, prevails.

Yet, even in Scotland, the attainment agenda has skewed educational debate. In March this year, for example, The Herald ran a front-page piece on exam league tables. It compared Scottish schools in respect of learners who achieved “The Herald’s benchmark of five or more Highers by the time they leave”.

The very benchmark chosen, five or more Highers, entry level for the most keenly pursued university courses, says something about current perspectives on attainment.

Schools are measured by the added-value they give their already highly attaining cohort. They are not measured by the numbers attaining work on leaving school or by levels of basic literacy, measures which would be relevant to those students leaving school with qualifications at a more basic level.

In March also, the Scottish government reported on ensuring that every child, irrespective of socio-economic background, should have an equal chance of gaining a university place. Again, closing the gap is concentrating on entry to the very highest levels of education.

Perhaps it is inevitable that in a society in which the market rules, and where consumer choice is perceived as the ultimate virtue, that high-end educational qualifications are the only valued commodity which schools are seen as producing.

To be fair, the Scottish government’s initiatives on raising attainment include major interventions on basic numeracy and literacy but that is not how it feels in schools. The pressure is on attainment at “the top end” and the encouragement of competition among schools only adds to that pressure.

In the contemporary world, the pursuit of educational qualifications at the highest level for every learner is an inevitable and proper part of the teaching process. We owe it to our learners, at whatever academic level of qualification they are pursuing, to set our sights (and theirs) high and to support them to achieve the best outcomes practical.

We also, however, owe it to our learners to develop their many skills and attributes which are not measured by external examinations, social skills, interpersonal skills, physical skills, sporting skills, knowledge of the wider world and of culture and much more.

Nationally monitored, standardised testing is also to be applied in Scotland. There is nothing educationally remiss with testing per se. The problem with testing is not the act of testing but the purpose to which it is to be put.

As a principal teacher of learning support in the 1980s, I was regularly engaged in standardised testing and retesting of reading and spelling of all learners about to transfer to secondary and in our school’s S1 and S2. The purpose: to measure progress and identify barriers to progress, to identify the specific needs of individual students and to support teachers in working with them.

Testing should be part of the daily routine of teachers, to assess the extent that identified learning outcomes have been attained and to find the area of learning where every child is between what they can do and what they can’t do; to help identify stimulating, stretching but achievable learning tasks for students. Today’s testing however is to compare and measure schools.

There is an understandable view that raising educational levels is crucial to raising economic efficiency and that perception has been partially responsible for the focus on examination outcomes and testing.

Policy-makers might, however, contemplate whether exam results are the sole valid, or merely one partial and very approximate, measure of educational outcomes. More profoundly, policy-makers might also consider whether formal qualifications have become an arbitrary gatekeeper, unrelated to the skills required for specific jobs or further educational courses to which they guarantee entrance.

Perhaps also, however, policy-makers require to reflect on what has driven much of the “public” interest in examination outcomes. Within a system skewed by parental choice, exam results are a simple proxy, understandable to middle class and ambitious parents for the school which will most effectively gain their child the social outcomes they value. These moreover are also the parents most vocal in their communities and most likely to vote. Their influence perhaps exceeds that which their numbers would justify.

The obsession with statistics has also boosted the powers and influence of a technocratic managerial caste in education for which the measurable alone is valuable. The result has been that policy-makers have devalued the very key aspects of teaching (curriculum, pedagogy, ethos) which are the real keys to effective teaching, sound learning and improved attainment.

Interestingly, there has been a more intense focus on both curriculum and pedagogy in England than in Scotland. Michael Gove’s moves, however, to a more traditional (English) corpus of knowledge and his distaste for “faddish adherence to quack theories”, have not yet been echoed in Scotland.

Nonetheless, the continued emphasis on raising attainment and closing the gap in Scotland has encouraged teachers to ignore curricular content and pedagogical methods which are not directly geared to examination success. The pressure is to reduce the scope of content and increase the concentration on exam practice.

Scottish education has avoided some of the disasters seen in England but many of the trends are worryingly similar. At a time when the National 4 and National 5 exams are under major question by teachers across Scotland, perhaps a debate on the broader purposes of examinations and testing is crucial if Scottish schools are to avoid becoming the exam factories into which they are being forced to develop.

 

 

First published, SecEd, 25 August 2016: http://www.sec-ed.co.uk/blog/the-attainment-challenge-what-is-the-purpose-of-testing/

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