Don’t blame Covid-19: educational testing has been broken for years

Photo credit: Max Fischer via Pexels

The recent A-level debacle, which hit students from disadvantaged areas hardest, has been presented as an unprecedented set of circumstances because of Covid-19. But a report just published shows that the gap in educational attainment in terms of class and ethnic background has been growing steadily since well before the pandemic, largely because of poverty.

Even worse, the inbuilt bias and resulting inequalities that were revealed in the furore about the Ofqual algorithm can be seen in the testing and assessment of school students going back over decades.

The 11-plus – labelling millions as failures

Between 1944 and 1976, around 30 million children in the UK took the 11-plus; two-thirds failed and went to secondary moderns, while those who passed went to grammar schools. This was supposed to create a path to social mobility for bright, working-class children. But in reality, few working-class children who went to grammar schools achieved good exam results or went on to university.

Those who failed the exam were in effect labelled ‘stupid’. Families and friends were often divided because of the results. In 1959, I passed the 11-plus, but my friend and next-door neighbour did not. From then on, our schooling, lives and futures diverged.

An additional, little-known fact is that 11-plus scores were routinely weighted more heavily against girls, even though they scored more highly than boys. This resulted in more boys overall going on to grammar schools than girls, as young women’s future prospects were regarded as less important.

SATS – creating stress for teachers and pupils

In 1989, my son’s cohort were the guinea pigs for new assessments called Standard Assessment Tasks (or Tests), to be administered at 7, 11, 14 and (briefly) 16. This was ‘unprecedented’ and highly controversial: it was the first time that seven-year-olds had faced external assessment.

SATs were linked to the new National Curriculum in English, Maths and Science, but there were tensions and conflicts from the start between teachers’ assessments of children’s learning and the government’s wish to compare results year on year by reliable measures (sound familiar?). The first round of SATs in 1991 were deemed ‘unfair and unworkable’ by primary teachers and there were several boycotts of the tests in subsequent years.

Although SATs were gradually slimmed down to make them more manageable, targets were introduced for the level required to be met by children, with the aim of driving up standards. Results were published in school league tables, putting increasing pressure on children and teachers alike.

Since their introduction, the social class gap in SATs attainment has remained stubbornly wide, though girls continue to do better than boys at the age of 11. This has disturbing echoes of the 11-plus over 50 years ago.

The first A-level scandal

There is an uncanny resemblance between this year’s A-level fiasco and the furore surrounding the A-level results of 2002. This was the first year of a new two-part A-level, consisting of an easier AS level at the end of the first sixth form year, and a harder A2 level in the second year (11). Putting the two years’ results together led to a large increase in ‘A’ grades compared to previous years, so the exam boards (mainly OCR) moved the grade boundaries at the last minute, leading to many students failing who had actually scored well on earlier marking. This was the same cohort of students who had been the guinea pigs for the SATs all through their school careers.

Teachers and students were angry and upset at this ‘grade fixing’, universities regarded it as an ‘unprecedented fiasco’ and many students lost their expected university places (sound familiar again?).  The secretary of state for education, Estelle Morris, set up an independent enquiry, and the head of the (then) exam regulator QCA was forced to resign. By October, over 2,000 students had their grades reversed and Estelle Morris resigned. (Watch this space about Gavin Williamson).

Testing to destruction?

These examples are an indictment of a system in which, under successive governments, there seems to be a moral panic around grade inflation, leading to changes and reversals in assessment – at the last minute with the 2002 and this year’s A-level grades – at the expense of many thousands of young people’s futures.

We should also question the very means by which children are assessed and the numbers of changes to assessment there have been over the years. There are many critics of the testing regime, including teachers and parents who argue that it leads to a narrowing of what is taught, negative effects on children’s well-being and an increase in the attainment gap.  As Michael Rosen has been saying for a long time, this is what happens when you turn children into data.

International contrasts, such as Finland, are stark. Finland’s education system has been praised for some years and the country scores highly in the global PISA tables, as well as in children’s well-being. Yet there are no compulsory national tests of pupils; the first national exam is for 18-year-olds who want to go to university. Student progress is assessed throughout school by their teachers. In a recent visit to a Finnish primary school with educators from all over the world, we asked the headteacher, ‘What’s the secret of Finland’s success in education?’ Without hesitation, she answered, ‘We trust our teachers. They are all highly trained specialists, and they know their students and their capabilities better than anyone.’ As students return to school, the UK government would do well to remember this.

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