We live in a global testing culture and the effects on education worldwide have been quite dramatic. In some countries, testing industries have emerged, generating considerable profits for some while producing what are euphemistically called 'standardised tests' to be applied punitively to schools. The outcomes are almost invariably used to castigate the politicians of the day as well as destroy teacher morale and grossly mislead the wider public.
There is a touching belief that educational tests can give some kind of objective measure of what school (or university) students can do. It needs to be stated that nothing is further from the truth. I know of one country where they set the national examination in one subject in such a way that the average mark exceeds 90%. This is then used to claim the success of that subject and its wonderful teachers. A look at the examination papers reveals that little is being rewarded beyond filling in trivial pieces of information or ticking a few boxes. A test, if designed appropriately, can be made to 'prove' more or less anything.
Every test and examination is simply a measuring instrument without a scale marked on it. All it does is place the candidates in some approximate order of merit. Our own examination board is well aware of this and uses sensible, mainly statistical, techniques to ensure that the 'standards' in each subject are kept approximately similar from year to year. Thus, media comments that pass rates have risen or fallen are simply specious.
We have been subjected to endless claims that the standards of Scottish education are falling. The claims are based on test data. It should be recognised that any test or examination is only as good as the quality of the questions asked. If we look at international test regimes, then the situation can be seen to be woeful. Numerous academic studies have consistently pin-pointed the weaknesses of such testing. It is simply impossible to create questions that are fair across many nations. Not only are there subtleties of language, there are even greater subtleties of cultural contexts, while legitimate emphasis in teaching and testing approaches varies widely across countries.
All of this has been explored in rigorous academic study and yet we still have this touching faith that recent test results say anything useful about the quality of Scottish education. They don't. In simple terms, the findings from international comparisons in education are worthless. This is not an opinion. In the past few years, book after book has collated the evidence. There are even studies that reveal how and why some countries repeatedly come high in the ranking orders while others come lower. As a measure of education quality in school education, this testing industry is completely useless.
If we look at national testing, the same issues arise. While it is now easier to make the test fairer across one culture, there are still major problems. If the same test is used at different points in time, there is no certainty that educational emphases have remained constant over that time. If different, but broadly equivalent, tests are used on different occasions, there is no certainty that the tests are of the same level of demand. It is impossible to resolve these issues. However, the greatest problem arises in the backwash effects of testing on schools.
Numerous studies, in all kinds of countries and contexts, have shown that this kind of testing does immense damage. One observer noted that there are two repeatedly observed outcomes from all testing – national and international. The first is that it generates a demoralised teaching force. The second is that standards actually fall. The reason for the former is that teachers are blamed for any supposed shortcoming (if there are 'successes', politicians claim the credit). The second is that testing regimes force teachers to teach to the test. Test results then rise for a few years but, as the tests only reward a very limited range of outcomes (mainly recall of knowledge and procedures), the more valuable outcomes of education are neglected. Our school students experience poorer quality education.
It appears that trainee teachers are not too happy about the teacher training experiences. Some years ago, I recall being invited to give a talk to 50 students about to enter secondary teaching in the sciences. I presented a brief outline of research about how the human brain processes information and how this explains difficulties in understanding in the sciences, while revealing ways to reduce the problems. The research was not particularly new but it is supported by vast evidence. Because I had to rush to another meeting, I gave my email so that students could follow up with questions, comments and discussion. An email dialogue then ensued and I was shaken by the comment of one student who indicated that she was speaking on behalf of the entire group when she said that 'they had learned more in that one talk than in their entire educational studies course.' Now that is frightening.
I see a steady move in Scottish education to undermine the work of the teaching profession, despite political protestations to the contrary. Teacher education may need to be re-thought, the bureaucracy of paperwork imposed on teachers needs reduced, the endless rounds of inspections and reports hold up progress, but the most serious issue is the imposition of ever more testing in schools. We are in great danger of destroying much of what is good in Scottish education and imposing a regime of teaching to maximise meaningless test outcomes, thus destroying the creativity, hard work and commitment that so often characterises the activities in Scottish schools today. Testing costs money. It undermines good work in schools. It lowers quality. The research evidence is unequivocal. Indeed, I could find no serious academic study that gave evidence to the contrary other than assertions from testing organisations. The evidence was captured neatly in a recent book entitled 'The Mismeasure of Education'.
We need to move to celebrate successes. Scotland leads the world in so many areas today in education. In many places, our graduates are recognised as among the best in the world. Indeed, our best are head-hunted by other countries while some industries locate in Scotland simply because of employee quality. Even our much-maligned Curriculum for Excellence offers the scope for exciting developments, provided that we can remove the dead hand of education direction and administration, provided at public expense locally and nationally.
Over many years, I have supervised large numbers of research students from overseas. Often they came with their families. Again and again, they told me that their children did not want to return to their own countries because they found the schools here so wonderful. Indeed, I recall one student who arranged her own study periods in Scotland to coincide with her two sons completing their own education, one at school, the other at university. Let us also remember that the European country which always seems to excel in education has a totally comprehensive education system: no university tuition fees, no school inspectorate and no national testing (with the inevitable leagues tables). They have no problems in attracting and retaining teachers who are valued as professionals and expected to be extremely well-qualified and work hard. They are not disappointed.
Norman Reid is emeritus professor of science education at Glasgow University
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