Testing Times

The testing of our children and young people is a popular topic for discussion by the media and intervention from our rulers.  I have always assumed that this is because everyone (or almost everyone) has had the experience of being educated (even if for some of us, it lies in the distant past) and so we all feel that we have a valuable contribution to make to the debate.  As this post will show, I am (apparently) no different.

Over the last week, the examinations we inflict on those in their teens have once again been in the news.  Firstly, the Education Secretary seems keen that we re-instate the O-level (I’m not clear if he also favours the return of the CSE – or just plans to write off those that are slightly less academically inclined at 14 to save time later).  This appears to be on the basis that exams are becoming easier: an idea that is trotted out every few weeks, and usually without the bodyguard of evidence which might have been anticipated (if only by the inveterate optimist).  As a chap of more advanced years, and who took – and passed – a frankly ridiculous number of O-levels, I would quite like to believe that we had it tough in my day.  However, as a chap who also spent a little time (but almost certainly more than Mr Gove) working in evidence-based research on education this is quite hard to demonstrate.  The evidence is rather confounded by the switch to both continuous assessment and modular examination from an approach based purely on final examination.  I ought to declare an interest here, as I owe a lot of what I like to call my success to being able to recall information on various days in June during the 1980s.  Nevertheless, I suspect that real life works rather more on the basis of continuous assessment (though come the Day of Judgment I may be proven wrong) – though, as I’ve said before, a good memory can be quite handy too as it is often mistaken for intelligence or thought.  The switch to modular examination means that far fewer exams are either failed or completed with poor marks than in days of yore, as students rarely carry onto the final examination stage if the earlier modules went badly.  This would tend to increase average marks, even if the exams had remained exactly as difficult as before.  I suppose the difficulty of making comparisons might explain why folks rarely bother to provide evidence for their viewpoint but (presumably) rely on faith, which means that rather more of our education system is using faith-based schools than the official statistics would suggest.

The desire for soi-disant harder exams, often goes hand-in-glove with a desire for such revolutionary Victorian ideas as learning more dates in history (other dried fruit did exist in the past) and memorising poems.  These ideas tend to be pushed by folks with a Y-chromosome, which I think smacks of self-interest.  As a fella myself, I’m pretty sure that men feel they have the edge when it comes to collecting and obsessing over lists of facts: be they football results, the combat effectiveness of chaos marines or details of rolling stock.  The approach can be useful, particularly in a pub quiz, and a few dates with a bit of basic chronology does help give events in the past a little context.  Personally, I think it would be quite nice if I knew a little more poetry off-by-heart (though the people I chose to recite it to may be rather less grateful).  Then again, as I managed to waste a fair chunk of Sunday evening reading about Isaiah Berlin’s thoughts on positive and negative freedom – not for work, nor even the OU, but just out of curiosity having encountered a tiny fragment of the topic on the web – I may not be the best person to ask.  I suspect, in general, the need to squirrel away loads of “facts” in the brain is far less relevant now than when I was a boy, given how much easier it now is to look things up (though it is also far easier to find things only masquerading as facts).  In these modern times, perhaps the study of history is best seen as a method to understand the human world and how it came to be this way and how to evaluate the usefulness of different sources of information.  Perhaps by understanding history, rather than memorising when it happened, we might be slightly less prone to repeating it?

Those not suited for these new harder exams are, at best, pushed at vocational qualifications.  The government, spurred on by “business” (whoever they might be), always seems very keen on vocational qualifications – and on specifying what they should be.  Unfortunately, the choices foisted on the young are generally for the vocations wanted today (or more often yesterday) and fail to recognise that needs might have changed by the time they actually acquire the qualification a few years down the line.  This is where I feel education triumphs over training: a decent education should equip one to cope with a whole range of possible futures, whereas training can leave one ready only for a “future” that no longer exists.

The final, current news item in this field is the story that exam boards are competing for students by dumbing-down their exams.  Perhaps not hugely surprising as students, teachers and schools are all led to believe that their futures depend on obtaining high marks at examination.  Even less of a shock when you know that exam boards are here to make a profit and so compete for entries.  We appear to have a system where it is in everyone’s interest (except the nation as a whole or those with an interest in learning) for the exams to be as easy as possible.  I wonder who can have created such a system?  I rather think it may have been previous Secretaries of State for Education acting on faith rather than evidence.  It is good to know that such a successful approach from the past continues to inform policy today (does sarcasm work in print?  Should it have its own font?).  I’m beginning to think Mr Gove might have a point about the poor quality of teaching (particularly in history and mathematics): though as he is my age (OK, marginally younger – but I’m much better preserved), it would appear his criticisms should be aimed at the system of O-levels and the old Exam Boards rather than at GCSEs!  The GCSE generation have yet to have their opportunity to wreck the education system with initiatives from above, so the jury will have to remain out for now…

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