Education Letter: Tests teach us to value only what we measure

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IT IS an undeniable fact that far too many of our children reach adolescence without adequate skills in English (Education, "Expecting too little could cost us a lot", 25 February). Most of these children will be disadvantaged for the rest of their lives. Change is needed by all of us, not just "those working within education". Whether, however, the recently introduced "literacy hour" in primary schools will achieve its aim to raise standards in literacy is questionable.

The National Literacy Strategy defines literacy as "the ability to read and write". Fine in itself: but to measure this ability in 11-year-olds largely by tests and achieving targets at the end of key Stage 2 is counter- productive. No wonder some children's book publishers now either commission authors to write specifically within the constraints of the national curriculum targets or emphasise that their books meet certain targets as laid down by the Government. (This has worrying Orwellian overtones.) It is, though, easy money for the publishers, as anxious parents - and who can really blame them - flock to buy them. As long as children are able to meet the Government targets, or so the logic goes, they must be literate. What nonsense! Any more certain way to stifle a child's (or adult's) enjoyment of reading is hard to imagine.

David Blunkett has said that he will resign if 80 per cent of 11-year- olds do not reach Level 4 in English by 2002. Call me a sceptic, but these targets will be met. The "literacy hour" will be deemed to have been successful in raising standards in reading and writing. All will be praised.

If (when) the national targets for Key Stage 2 English are met, all that can, in truth, be concluded is that more children will have been successful in the tests. I am not entirely dismissive of testing, and do think there is a place for target-setting both nationally and within individual schools, but we must not use tests and targets as an end in themselves. What we will emphatically not be able to conclude is that standards in literacy have been raised.

Listening to a head teacher the other day explaining the improvement in her school's Key Stage 2 results this year, she put it down (very honestly, and with some cynicism) to examination technique, which they now taught, and not to the genuine raising of reading and writing standards.

We are, I fear, in danger of becoming a nation that values what we measure, rather than one that measures what we value.