National Testing Resumes in Britain

Status: 
Archived
Subject: 
K-12 Testing

After being blocked for two years by a teacher boycott, national exams have been introduced in England and Wales. Though the tests now face little organized opposition, critics continue to argue that the exams are harmful to good instructional practice and thus to student learning. (Teacher resistance led Scotland to opt out of the new tests entirely.)

The 1992-1994 boycott was the consequence of a lengthy effort by the British government to develop a comprehensive national examination system (see Examiner, Summer 1993). The system included new tests at key stages, roughly ages 7 and 14, along with revised school exit exams at age 16. (The school exit exams were not boycotted.)

Because teachers demanded that assessments be compatible with good instruction, the government initially relied on complex performance tasks in designing the exams. A 1991 pilot showed that the tasks required substantial individual attention, taking large amounts of teacher time and disrupting classrooms for weeks. While teachers seemed to agree that the tasks on the pilot assessments could be useful if incorporated into regular instruction, they were unwieldy when used as a stand-alone exam. In addition, they provided little information about student learning beyond what teachers already possessed. Reporting requirements were enormous, including a 112-page math form for the 14-year-olds. The pilot also found that the exams reliabilities were low, due largely to the complex performance tasks and administration.

As a result of the controversy over the pilot, the government simplified and narrowed the tests. Teachers then denounced the modified exams as narrowing and limiting curriculum and instruction. They also argued that high stakes tests should not be administered to 7-year-olds. Teachers further pointed out that though the government claimed the tests for 14-year-olds would support early intervention, the school-leaving age for most students was only two years later, at age 16.

The argument about excessive work came to dominate the discussion. The boycott, supported by nearly all teachers and most parents, was declared legal by British courts because the increased workload was a legitimate focus for teacher job actions. This aspect of the resistance was what the government targeted.

Sir Ron Dearing of the governing Conservative party was appointed to review the national exam and make recommendations for changes. He faced a choice: retain the exams, but change them so that they would not take so much teacher time; or shift to a school-based method of assessment that would rely on learning records and portfolios. His report opted for the first method. As British educator Myra Barrs, co-author of the Primary Learning Record (see Examiner, Summer 1992) noted, Once again, the monitoring functions of assessment are shaping the design of the system as a whole. As a result, Dearing failed to give classroom assessment by teachers the central place it should have.

To reduce teacher time, the exams were further simplified. The tests are now almost entirely paper and pencil, though multiple-choice is still only used to a limited extent. Additionally, schools can hire substitute teachers during exam administration, and exam results are no longer scored in the school. Together, these actions eliminated the increased workload argument. Even though the new exams were even more likely to damage curriculum and instruction, the boycott ended. The exams were administered in 1995, with little organized opposition.

Classroom Consequences

The explicit intent in Britain is to use the exams to direct changes in schooling, an intent that is also common in many U.S. reform proposals. The government envisioned parents using exam scores to choose schools. The consequent high stakes would supposedly force schools to improve. The essential question, then, is whether the changes will produce improvement in learning.

Critics say the answer is no. Instead, they argue, the pressure of testing will narrow curriculum and instruction. Teachers will limit their forms of teaching and the work students do to the tests content and format.

Barrs and others add that national data can be obtained by evaluating samples of student work accumulated over time. Portfolios or other summaries of work can be reviewed as a check on teachers accuracy in evaluating their own students, as is beginning to be done with the Primary Language Record and California Learning Record (see Examiner, Summer 1995). This is an approach recommended by the National Forum on Assessment s Principles and Indicators for Student Assessment Systems for providing accountability information. Barrs argues that this approach can simultaneously strengthen classroom instruction and assessment, and provide much richer information to parents and the public.

One recent academic study concludes that the exam-driven approach to school reform does not lead to a high-quality curriculum. Sarah Warshauer Freedman, director of the U.S. National Center for the Study of Writing, investigated the effects of the age-16 British exams, the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). She found that for the two years previous to the test, the exam dominates the teaching of writing. The GCSE allows schools to choose portfolios to constitute the exam, and Freedman s review of portfolios showed they contained a range of kinds of writing. She noted that this should be the sort of external performance assessment that would be compatible with high-quality instruction.

However, Freedman found the results of her study depressing. Even with portfolios, the exam classrooms had to adhere to requirements that inhibited the teachers abilities to build a coherent curriculum with their students and inhibited the amounts and kinds of writing the students did. The teachers themselves recognized that this process reduced student learning, and it was most harmful to students who needed the most help. U.S. teachers, who had been partnered with British teachers as part of the study, concluded that any kind of high-stakes examinations . . . . would be harmful to their students writing development.

Freedman concludes that even the most performance-based external exams with high stakes, such as eligibility to enroll in further education, will not lead to the goal of improving learning for all students. Rather than using top-down examsto promote change, she recommends focusing on collaborative, bottom-up change by teachers and schools. This is in line with what British critics of that nation s exams have called for. Unfortunately, in the U.S. as in England and Wales, the trend now is toward using exams for control. In the U.S., the emphasis on multiple-choice and norm-referencing makes the situation even worse.

Barrs, Myra. 1994. The Road Not Taken. The Forum, V. 36, N. 2 (an English journal).

Freedman, S.W. 1994. School Reform through Examinations: Lessons from the British Experience. National Center for the Study of Writing and Literacy, 5513 Tolman Hall, U. Cal., Berkeley, CA 94720; $4.50, includes handling.