The unintended consequences of the school testing regime, by Professor Alastair Sharp

Published by ‘Slow Education‘, and appearing as Section C3.5 in, ‘Learning Matters‘.

Most of us have heard of ‘Peter’s Principle’ (“Employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence”) and ‘Parkinson’s Law’ (‘Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion’). Both point to unintended consequences.

In the educational sphere a new ‘law’ has been adopted: Campbell’s Law. This states that “when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways”.

Some commentators have indicated that the micro-management of education, and the exam based culture that has developed at an increasing pace over the last decade, has resulted in a distortion of education and a decline in the very nature of the humanist tradition on which many education systems have been based. The humanist tradition in education aims to promote intellectual and emotional development, and aims to inspire an interest and a desire to learn, with the ultimate purpose of teaching the young how to live happier, healthier and more fulfilling lives. There is little evidence that this is what is happening in England’s test obsessed education system.

Campbell’s Law talks of distortions. What kind of ‘distortions’ have occurred? School league tables, ‘payment by results’ for teachers and pressure on school students have inevitably resulted in the need to ‘teach to the test’. Teaching to the test can be defined as a concentration on skills and activities that increase test scores with little concern for the depth of learning or understanding. This ‘commodification of learning’ results when education becomes merely a test score. A reduced concern for education is necessary as teachers prepare students for a narrowly focused test on which schools and students are judged. School education and instruction has become increasingly measurement driven – if you can’t measure it, exclude it!

Test scores and educational standards are not the same thing.

There has been a narrowing of the curriculum: music and drama are favourites for neglect. Rote learning replaces higher order learning. Schools have to teach exam strategies and rote learned responses, with more low-level, drill-and-skill teaching. Problem solving and creativity are vital in a curriculum, but are very hard to test. They cannot be tested at all using the most common format for testing: multiple-choice questions.

The reports of cheating at a north London primary school in October 2013 were nothing new. 370 schools were reported for cheating last year by the Government’s ‘Standards and Testing Agency’. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers reported that 35% of teachers felt that testing pressures were so great that they would consider cheating (manipulating test scores, remarking assessments, re-writing coursework).

And then there is the problem of marking tests… why are we deluded into thinking that they will always be precise, reliable and valid? Essay-type questions for example can be notoriously difficult to assess objectively. Exams are marked by fallible humans beings.

Schools that slip down the league tables are pushed into improving their test preparation. But is this the same as improving the education they offer?

Campbell’s Law states that: “the more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt will it be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor”.

The clear inference of Campbell’s Law is that the over-reliance on quantitative scores as a measure of performance for students, teachers and schools has had clear and damaging effects on all those concerned and the very process itself.

And if this were not enough, there is very worrying evidence that exam pressure may be a contributing factor behind the rise in self-harming and suicidal behaviour amongst young people. Child Line reported a 59% increase in the number of self-harm callers in 2010-2011 compared to the previous year. 86% of the respondents admitted that depression was the main reason for calling and admitted to hurting themselves as a way of ’coping’. A survey of 6020 students by the Samaritans found that 70% of those self-harming, with accompanying suicidal thoughts, had stated that this was because of worries about school work and exams. Young Minds, the UK mental health charity, is currently involved in a two-year project looking directly at the damage being done to children by the target-driven curriculum in England. Of course these issues are complicated and suicidal behaviour has multiple causes, not least the strong connections with depression and other mental health problems. But there are worrying connections with exam stress: this needs urgent investigation ( C5.2, 5.9 in ‘Learning Matters’).

Is it not time we paused to re-think what is being done in the name of education? Why this obsession with measurement? High stakes exams were never this frequent when I was young. We have always accepted the need for assessment: it can be motivational, as well as judgmental. But over–testing is obstructing education. It is time to do something about it.

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2 Responses to The unintended consequences of the school testing regime, by Professor Alastair Sharp

  1. Pingback: Why mistakes must be celebrated | Roger Titcombe's Learning Matters

  2. Pingback: School improvement is reducing social mobility | Roger Titcombe's Learning Matters

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