Do School Tests Lower Standards?

By Mooney, Tony | New Statesman (1996), October 23, 1998 | Go to article overview

Do School Tests Lower Standards?


Mooney, Tony, New Statesman (1996)


Tony Mooney warns that new exams for five year olds could lead to an educational disaster

This country's schoolchildren now take more formal national tests of their abilities than any other children on earth. We have had tests at the ages of seven, 11, 14 and 16 for some years. Now, from the start of this school year, we have new tests: "baseline assessments" for five year olds, completed within the first seven weeks of a child entering school. The tests measure children's ability to recognise and write the numbers one to ten, to spell and write simple words and to recognise letters by shape and sound.

So tens of millions of pounds are now being spent annually on the various tests. Do they give value for money?

The tests were conceived in the afterglow of the Tories' 1987 general election victory. They were supposed to give parents objective measures both of their own children's performance and of their local school's performance. League tables would show how schools in similar areas got widely differing results. Underperforming schools, therefore, would have no hiding place; pressure from parents (who were simultaneously given more choice of schools) would inevitably lead to higher standards. So ran the Tory logic.

By extending the tests to five year olds, Labour has legitimised the testing regime. Before this year, critics argued that the tests for older children did not give a true picture of a school's performance because there was no measure of the very different abilities of their intakes. The new tests meet that objection: now, runs the argument, all schools can be judged "fairly" according to children's "progress" since entry.

So far, so good. But what if the tests themselves depress performance and lead to lower academic standards? There is growing evidence that this is indeed the case.

The Secondary Heads Association was one of the first to sound the alarm bells. In a survey carried out between 1995 and 1998, it found that 75 per cent of secondary schools had recorded a sharp decline in the verbal reasoning of 11 year olds since tests had been introduced in the late 1980s. Hinchingbrooke School in Huntingdon, for example, had given children the same tests (designed by the National Foundation for Educational Research) since 1987. By 1995, average scores had fallen by more than 10 per cent; yet the school's intake had remained stable, with no demographic changes.

It is true that, in the government's own nationally administered tests, scores have risen. But this may simply mean that teachers are becoming more conversant with the tests and are coaching their pupils accordingly. Anyone who bought Hans Eysenck's book Test Your Own IQ and followed the tests from beginning to end saw how their IQ rose as they took more tests. …

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