Bethan Marshall: Why are we the only country still testing?

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The Independent Online

Very soon only children in England, of all the home nations, will be subject to national curriculum tests for children aged seven, 11 and 14. All other parts of the United Kingdom have either never done them or are phasing them out. All, apart from England have scrapped league tables based on test scores and exam results. Devolved government, it seems, is making its mark in education policy.

The Scottish have never really tested their children in the same way as the English and Welsh. Whereas the latter two countries have relied on centrally-written, unseen, timed pencil and paper tests to be taken on a specific day in May, the Scots have always looked more to the judgement of the teacher. In Scotland children take a test when the teacher believes the child is ready. The Scottish are now thinking of putting even more power in the hands of the teachers. A consultation document has gone out which suggests that the main way pupils' attainment will be judged at seven, 11 and 14 is through teacher assessment.

The Welsh are being similarly bold. Tests for seven-year-olds have already been abolished. Further changes to the testing arrangements are likely to flow from an interim report on the value of the national curriculum tests, undertaken by Professor Richard Daugherty of Aberystwyth University. He says the tests for 14-year-olds are a waste of money and that both parents and children would be much better served by well-moderated teacher assessment. He also believes that tests taken by 11-year-olds at the end of primary school distort the curriculum and should go. Simply telling teachers not to teach to the test is, he feels, confusing and unrealistic. Instead, he proposes a test in year five, the penultimate year of primary school, which would attempt to assess more generic skills across the curriculum - in particular, children's learning skills. The information would contribute to a portfolio which would follow a pupil into year six and then on into secondary school.

Northern Ireland has always been different mainly because, while most of the rest of the UK abandoned selective education, Northern Ireland retained it. The belief in the efficacy of the selection process was shattered, however, by the findings of John Gardner of Queen's University, Belfast. His report, published in 2000, found that the exams set for the 11-plus exam had a 30 per cent degree of unreliability either way. If such a finding were applied to GCSEs, a candidate who was a B might get an A one day and a D the next. So stark were his findings that a commission was set up to check them. They found that, if anything, Gardner was being conservative in his estimation of the unreliability of the 11-plus. As a result the Northern Irish are also now contemplating a radical overhaul of their testing arrangements, including challenging the much prized system of selective schooling.

None of these countries are quite as far ahead as the island of Jersey. While not officially part of the UK, Jersey has followed the UK exam system, including the curriculum tests. Last year, however, they piloted teacher assessment for seven-year-olds and this year they are doing the same for 11-year-olds, along with one secondary school which will be relying on teacher assessment in English. This move has the full backing of Senator Mike Vibert, the island's Charles Clarke. At a conference at the beginning of the year, attended by every teacher in Jersey, he said it was time assessment helped learning instead of hindering it.

Given that such fundamental questions are being raised about the national curriculum tests everywhere but England, (with the exception of a minor concession by Clarke on the tests for seven-year-olds) we need to ask why the same thing is not happening in England. The weight of evidence and experience appears to be being heeded in the rest of the UK. In fact this may have contributed to the low turnout in the NUT's recent ballot to boycott the tests. Welsh teachers didn't need industrial action to get their voices heard. The new ballot on the tests for 14-year-olds may suffer the same fate. The rhetoric at Westminster is still that tests are good for the soul and league tables keep teachers up to the mark. Can we have devolution for England please?

The writer is a lecturer in education at King's College London