Education secretary Nicky Morgan firmly believes ‘rigorous tests’ at Key Stage 2 will reduce the proportion of English pupils who are low performers in reading and maths in PISA* tests when compared with Korea and Singapore.
But results from PISA 2012 suggest that ‘rigorous tests’ may be an overreaction. The proportion of low achievers in the UK was not statistically different from the OECD average in maths and reading while there are fewer low performers in science than the OECD average.
Pointing out that PISA results for England are not as dire as Morgan implies shouldn’t be regarded as a sign of complacency, however. Low performance affects children’s life chances. But if ministers worship at the altar of PISA they should at least take note of what the OECD has to say.
OECD recommended several actions for countries wanting to improve the achievements of low-performing pupils. Testing does not feature in the list.
One recommendation was to create a ‘demanding’ learning environment. The Government could argue that frequent testing of pupils is necessary for this. But there is no evidence that ‘demanding’ means frequent, mandatory, summative tests for all pupils.
The OECD found only three countries used tests at the end of primary school. And if anyone can find a country which tests at age 6 or 7, I’d be grateful if they could supply evidence because I found none. Some countries don’t even start formal education until 6 or 7, but ministers think testing English pupils at such an early age is essential to push England up PISA league tables. But such early testing is not a feature of education systems which perform well in PISA.
Universal testing of pupils at the end of lower secondary (age 15 or 16) is also not common in OECD countries. Just 16 out of 36 countries said they tested all pupils (see page 487 here). Only two said they tested more than 5 subjects: Chile (6 ) and Slovenia (9). But English pupils are not only expected to take more than 8 subjects but they and their schools will be judged on ‘progress’ in their best 8.
The OECD warned in 2011 there was too much emphasis on exam results in England. This risked negative consequences. What these consequences are is becoming increasingly apparent: teaching to the test; distortion of the curriculum and a neglect of deep learning. Just two months ago, OECD guru Andreas Schleicher warned that UK performance in PISA maths tests would likely fall because maths teaching in the UK relied too much on ‘superficial’ learning often involving memorisation rather than developing concepts.
Assessment is an essential part of education. But assessment should be the servant of teaching not its master. State schools in England risk being turned into exam factories. The parents who withdrew their children from schools today realise this – and they don’t want such a narrow education forced upon their children.
EXTRA 17.45 Chief HMI Sir Michael Wilshaw has defended Key Stage 1 tests. “The government is right to introduce greater structure and rigour into the assessment process," he says. "Those who oppose this testing need to consider England’s mediocre position in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development rankings', TES reports. But as I've made clear above, there is no evidence that frequent testing, especially at such a young age, results in high performance in PISA tests.
*Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) administered every three years by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).