The Tyranny of the Test

Proof yet again this week from the USA –  if more proof were needed – of the flawed logic of equating improvements in test scores with improvements in literacy, or indeed of believing that literacy can be improved by legislation.  According to a CNN report, one of the net effects of George W Bush’s flagship education act, No Child Left Behind,  is actually a lowering rather than a raising of standards. The act states that every child must be proficient in reading and maths by 2014, and schools which fall short of that target are subject to financial penalties. What would you do in that situation, faced with cuts in what is already a meagre budget, especially if your school was in one of the more deprived areas of the country? Exactly. In almost a third of states, the test score required for “proficiency” was lowered to the point where almost every student was able to pass, and since states are responsible for setting and assessing their own tests, this was not difficult to achieve. The end result was that in one state the score required for proficiency was 70% of that required in a neighbouring state.


Source: New York Public Library: 1920s

What I find quite depressing about this story is not just the scramble to improve test scores, the desperation of governments and politicians to be seen to be improving standards, or the schools’ attempts to massage the figures and hang on to their budgets, but the fact that the most immediate concern of the CNN reporter, assuming to speak on behalf of parents if not the nation, is to find a way of making the test scores more reliable, robust and “standardised”, rather than engaging in a genuine debate about what it actually means to be proficient in reading, why it is necessary, and how it might be achieved for all young people.

It couldn’t happen here, could it?

Related Articles

Read the full CNN report by Randy Kaye here

Read Jaye Richards on Future Models of Assessment here


3 thoughts on “The Tyranny of the Test

  1. Although it has not made the news here yet I think that it has happened! There are far too many distractions within the Language scheme of work early on in a child’s life and not enough concentrating on the basics. I would be interested to see what others take on it is but here is my overcrowed week which does not allow for actually teaching the basics but instead looking at things which are not important for 6 and 7 year olds.

    There is also strong feeling of overcrowding within language and I suppose that is due to the fact that schools although working towards CfE are not letting go of 5 – 14 guidelines until we know what assessment will replace and what HMI are looking for!

    I do news which takes one session a week, story writing which takes one session a week this leaves me with three sessions to fit everything else in.

    I am expected to use Jolly Grammar and the reading scheme but for whatever reason I have to do every workbook and PCM that goes with it. I also have phonics input and handwriting to do. After Christmas they will also try and make me use an outdated comprehension scheme.

    I know for a fact that the Jolly Grammar although is a weekly programme was not designed to teach it all on the one day, their should be input daily which towards the end of the week should have the assessment in the form of the traditional worksheet in the book. It is simply not possible. The reading scheme which has 4 books taught over 3 weeks has 15 pages with it that equals almost 2 workbook pages a day.

    I have to say that I do have an active ethos in the classroom so things like the Grammar and spelling is done through games etc.

    What I feel happens (in my humble opinion) is that schools buy in these new schemes as they claim to solve problems but they don’t look at what is already there. So there are crossed wires and things being repeated. For example phonics input comes from the spelling page of Jolly Grammar (it is all in one book) but the reading scheme we do also has phonics pages. So the children are then bogged down in two different lots of phonics. It is the same with the comprehension – we do it in the reading workbook pages but are also expected to do it through Focus on Comprehension.

    There is no give and take and teacher professionalism is a laugh! This is not just in my school as for several years have also been on supply however this is the most prescriptive one I have been in.

    On top of that I have 5 reading groups to hear and I simply do not have time to do it properly!

    I also think that a major problem with Heads letting go is the turnover of staff within schools (probationers) in the past two years my school has had three and the years before that two. I can understand that if you don’t know what a person is doing or claiming to do it is much harder. It is easy to pick up a stack of workbooks and check that work is being done – however what is the quality of learning?

    Although I have not been up the school there is the same level of frustration there – things getting interesting but having to do the next lesson in the book etc. They also have the added expectation of using GLOW to develop ICT and discussions etc.

    My opinion is that if we are letting children down at the beginning of time because we can’t get them to read etc. then what hope it there when they get up the school.

  2. Thanks for writing about this. That is some powerful and disturbing information. As far as NCLB, all I can say is that, like always, water tends to seek its own level.

  3. Hi Natty08,
    How sad. You have just summed up more eloquently than I ever could the confusion which reigns over the way forward in terms of literacy development, and in fact the curriculum in general. It all sounds so familiar: the reluctance to let go of 5-14 curriculum; the fear of Big Brother in the form of HMIE or the local authority; the over-prescriptive nature of the guidelines to teachers; the compartmentalising of the curriculum (one hour of this, one hour of that, 2 sessions of something, x pages of something else); the need to pick up a “workbook” and see evidence of “hard work”. I wonder why there is such a turnover of staff! You have demonstrated through your concerns that teacher professionalism is indeed the key to changing the culture. There are people working for that change at the moment and they will prevail. Hang in there.

    Best wishes

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