4/5 Testing, testing, testing: right- and left-wing views of pupil measurement

[I was listening to the radio – this goes back many years. It was a Sixth Form quiz. The quiz-master asked the participants, ‘give me a famous composer beginning with B’. One contestant buzzed spontaneously and said, “Beethoven!”. “No,” said the quiz-master, “that’s not the name I have on the card”.]

So. It’s end of June, 2017. “Divided nation!” cry the headlines following the General Election on June 8th. People parted like the Red Sea into old political camps.

And so they should.



Why would we assume that the party that promotes lower taxes, is sceptical of the welfare state (as ‘inflationary’) and represents interests from business moguls to banks has shared interests with working people, vulnerable, elderly and poor people? Those latter people have an immediate life-or-death investment in the highest possible taxation, a substantial welfare state and restraints on the worst excesses of wealthy financial groups. The message drawn up from the deep well of cynicism and duplicity – that “we are all in this together” – bears a ring of bitter truth, in that when banks and businesses fail we all go down. But we should not confuse an unpalatable, unjust and coerced state of affairs with anything that is inherently desirable. Working people have been co-opted into the interests of the wealthy, dragged into an unnatural relationship of predation.

Since June 8th, 2017, the enforced unity of purpose has been shattered. Division is back again. It is healthy where it reflects real moral choices. The wealthy want to reduce their taxes; poor people want to see (should want to see) taxes rise. The wealthy tire of funding a welfare state (after all, who needs a healthy army of conscripts any more – one of the principal sources of welfare provision); the vulnerable and the poor have an intensifying need for it. As I pointed out in a previous Blog, Chantal Mouffe, philosopher/leader of the European Left, makes the case for for agonistic argument as opposed to antagonistic argument. The former acknowledges and is tolerant of difference whereas the latter is based on hostility and enmity. So let’s argue across that perfectly valid divide.

So perhaps the cat is out of the bag. The old divisions reign again. In which case it is time we explored how the fault-line passes through all areas of social and political life – including the public sector. We need to rediscover moral difference in education and the construction of classrooms – just as we do in the way the professions are managed and made operational, the w ay the public sector is configured.

Here’s a start:

A left-wing classroom recognises the student as a citizen with citizen rights – principally, the right to be respected. Giving a student a low mark for ‘failing’ a test is disrespectful. The very idea that we can rank students by worth into an academic hierarchy that is really little but a surrogate of a social hierarchy is beyond disrespect – it speaks to an approach to social justice that favours the elite and disfavours the rest. ‘The rest’ will inevitably be those lower down the social-economic scale. Why? Because the weight of research and opinion says that (a) all a test can do is to test your ability to take a test, and (b) it is all but impossible to devise a test that is culturally and socially neutral. (a) is critically important, of course. Time and again research has discovered that testing favours those young people who are unafraid of tests ad who are good at test technique. Indeed, one of the distortions of testing in the UK and the USA is just how much valuable time is taken up with teachers teaching test and exam technique. I have helped my two boys take on-line tests. More than occasionally they admonish me – ‘yes -that’s probably the best answer – but it’s not the one they want!’.

So, if you want an authoritative statement supporting the idea that all high-stakes tests are invalid, this link may shock you: http://www.eval.org/p/cm/ld/fid=76

But consider these examples: Finland (which is frequently rated in the top two of high-performing education systems) has no school testing or examination programme (Britain usually ranks around 20th in this particular league-table). Denmark and New Zealand – other high performing countries – have tests, but only for diagnostic use by the teacher. In the global elite International Baccalaureate curriculum tests are used only as a basis for conversation between teacher and student about progress.

Testing, for countries like the USA and the UK provides the infrastructure without which OfSTED-type control and the denial of social equity could not survive. In fact, we might see testing as meeting a psychological more than an educational need. Tests offer assurances to the political and administrative system just as much as to parents and employers – assurances that otherwise unpredictable circumstances are under control. Each has his or her own reasons for needing such reassurances, and, for sure, many will assume that educational tests are both educational and revealing. They are not.

But what should concern us most about educational testing is its ethic. There are ethical justifications given to support testing: that passing tests provides iron-clad security for working-class kids that they will share the benefits of the elite; that standardised tests create a common base-line that ensures equality; and that without tests we cannot properly take stock of the performance and quality of the schooling system. Each of these is specious:

(i) tests ensure access for the disadvantaged: First off, this might be true were it possible to design a test that was free of economic class bias. It is not. Children from lower socio-economic groups will always test worse than kids higher up the social scale. But nor is a test the only access point to elite benefits. Basil Bernstein, when alive Britain’s leading educational sociologist, showed how educational opportunities are restricted and kept close to the chest of the middle-class through how we use language – language, in its broadest sense, including the way we exchange. Think no further than the word ‘career’, and how it resonates with the children of doctors as against the children of shopkeepers, tradespeople and the unemployed – for the former, an expectation; for the latter, perhaps, a distant hope. Now think how the word ‘work’ resonates with these families. Tests, of course, carry those same biases and cannot guarantee anything.

(ii) standardised tests create a common ‘starting point’: This claim barely survives a moment’s reflection. Philosophers of equality and democracy are generally clear that equality of opportunity can only be generated where all socio-economic resources are equalised – and how far are we from that. Giving all kids the same test at the outset merely reinforces differences, because (see (i) above) some kids come to a test with built-in advantages. But, in any event, what we are after is greater equality of outcome – not opportunity (this was the Blair-Brown flip). [Just as an aside, let’s think for a moment about the difference between equality and equity. Here is a famous characterisation: equality is giving all children a pair of shoes; equity is giving all children a pair of shoes that fit.]

(iii) tests allow us to measure school performance – to everyone’s benefit: Now we find ourselves in the realm of deception and dissimulation. First off, you cannot use a test designed to measure one thing (an individual student’s performance) to measure another thing (a school, much less a school system’s) performance. Think of using a balance weighing scales designed to measure out grams/ounces of cooking ingredients to measure a warehouse full of sacks of grain. The slightest bias or error in the weighing process will be multiplied many, many times, margins of error grow exponentially and the finesse of micro-weighing is lost in gross added-up calculations. However, this does not approach the level of invalidity for such uses of tests. How can questions about molecules, escarpments, kings and queens, amoeba and isosceles triangles tell us anything at all about schools?!

No, there is no ethic that justifies tests and the cruel distortions it forces on education. In terms of our focus on right- and left-wing approaches to education, testing falls immediately into the right-wing enclosure. In the hoped-for new language of post-austerity Britain (at least), tests do not show respect for students and for student rights to self-determination. It is not respectful to force young people into identities such as ‘failing’ or ‘average’ – or, indeed, ‘successful’ – with the authoritarian use of an instrument. We should beware self-reassuring deceits that it is not the individual deemed to be failing, merely that person’s performance on this particular test. We forget how research consistently shows how much young people invest themselves in their work.A student rarely fails a test of a part of the curriculum; more often they fail the test of self-worth.

A left-wing ethic made up of respect, self-respect, self-determination, tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity – such an ethic denies the validity of any test in education. This is an extremist position – but that does not make it any the less legitimate. A yet more extremist position is to extend the principle to any form of assessment in the classroom, and this is a position taken by more than one country at some stage of education, and is certainly the position taken by Summerhill School, mentioned elsewhere in this series of Blogs as an exemplar of a left-wing approach to education. There is no evidence that the absence of assessment compromises the quality of education. All it does is to deny us a simple way of measuring educational quality. But, as we will see in the next and final blog in this series, there is no reason to think that educational quality is anything that can or should be measured.

I close this particular Blog with a brief story that is laden with problems and insights. We attended a parents’ meeting for our eldest son – unusually so – by the age of 12 or 13 he was more capable than us of managing his education and his teachers. But there we were. The evening started with his Head of Year – a nice, honourable and committed educator introducing us to the results of a test that had been given to Elliot and his peers.  Someone asked about the test. The teacher replied that it was just too complex and technical to be explained, and, in any event, he, himself, did not understand everything about the instrument. And, too, although our child was being tested, it was the school and the teachers who were the focus – so a poor performance did not mean anything, and we should not take it personally. But not to be concerned. We were in good hands – and anyway, this was a national test and all schools were administering it.

So – here is your own, personal test. Try to make sense of all that in the light of this Blog…!



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