Wales Drops Most Standardized Testing

K-12 Testing

In the 1980s, Great Britain under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher embraced a standardized test-based education system that became a model for U.S. proponents of test-driven education reform. Though Thatcher's successors John Major and Tony Blair retained the policy, Scotland exercised its autonomy to largely abandon it in 2003. Now Wales has decided to scrap most standardized testing through age 14, and an influential commission has recommended that England replace testing of 11- and 14-year-olds with teacher evaluations. England previously dropped the testing of 7-year-olds.


Leading the new direction in Welsh policy is Education Minister Jane Davidson, a former high school teacher. Davidson described the impact on children of the old test-driven system. "Each student was just a statistic," said Ms. Davidson. "And I wanted to get [teachers] back to actually talking about how to acknowledge and recognize the talents of people and how to support those talents as far as they could go."


The battle over controlling education through testing now shifts to England. Criticizing the current English system for promoting narrow and shallow learning as well as "risk-averse teaching" and too much teaching to the test, a report issued in December by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) said the result is students start secondary school with poor writing and math skills. The IPPR report recommended that pupils be assessed by their teachers and that sampling procedures be used to give an indication of how schools are performing.


With No Child Left Behind (NCLB) the law of the land, the United States remains firmly entrenched in the discredited English model and the centrality of standardized testing. Boston College Education Professor Andy Hargreaves, an Englishman, thinks Americans would do well to pause and take note of developments in Wales.


"Wales is arguably the most extreme example of a country that has been, with England, one of the most heavily high-stakes-tested places in the world and that has now decided to pretty much ditch this up through age 14," he said. In the United States, only Nebraska uses local assessments rather than a state exam to meet NCLB requirements.


The Welsh Alternative
What do Welsh teachers use instead of the tests? With government guidance, teachers come up with their own assessments and report the results to parents, local education authorities, and the Welsh government each year. Freed from the need to prepare students for narrow tests, secondary school teachers employ out-of-school experiences, in-depth research, and presentations, emphasizing applied learning in secondary school and underscoring the importance of play in early childhood education.


Brian Lightman, head teacher at a secondary school outside Cardiff, Wales, helped pilot some of the new approaches and is impressed with the results. "Our students now are so much more independent and capable of organizing and analyzing what they're doing, and they're able to improve as a result of that," he said. "They are very different in the way they go about their learning."


Scotland led the way in 2003, doing away with national testing for five to 14-year-olds. Scottish education minister, Peter Peacock, said the idea was to create a "seamless" curriculum with the emphasis on teaching rather than testing.