Thursday, July 26, 2007

Teaching To The Test

Teaching to the test: getting better all the time

Before you read this blog, you need to click here and watch the video.

Blood boiling?

We're all surely aware by now that the government's regime of school management via tests and tables has some serious shortcomings.

In particular, by building everything on a raft of "high stakes tests" for teachers and schools, it strongly reinforces their incentives to teach to the test, rather than the much more important job of teaching for understanding.

Take for example this fairly typical report from Times Educational Supplement about the infamous Key Stage 2 tests, sat at age 11 to make sure kids have mastered the basics before they move from primary to secondary schools:

"This year's Year 7 intake to Cyner Afan comprehensive school... had the best collection of national test results ever.

So head Wynn Williams was taken seriously aback when his classroom teachers started to tell him that many of these level 4 students needed special-needs support because they could not read.

He gave them the latest version of the London Reading Test, as he does to every intake, and found the teachers' verdict borne out: the national test results may have been the best ever, but the reading test scores were the worst.

"Some of these children are coming in with level 4 in all three subjects and they are barely literate," he says. "We haven't seen any difference in standards, and yet the national test scores are going up all the time.

I can only explain it by saying that my colleagues in primary schools are doing an extremely good job teaching to the test. We know how it works because we are now doing the same thing with KS3 tests. Our results show a significant improvement but we know the children are no better. It's just that our staff are better at teaching to the test."

And remember also, this is a game of statistics, not individuals. Success is the overall percentage of pupils who can be lifted above the magic hurdle rate, be it KS2 level 4 or GCSE grades A-C.

So for schools and teachers, the key is not to waste loads of time helping very poor performers who will never make the test grade. Still less is it the more fulfilling task of stretching very bright pupils. No, the key is to identify those pupils who are just below the pass grade, and to do whatever it takes to nudge them over.

As the Rowntree Trust recently reported, it's called triage (see this blog):

"There is much research evidence for ‘triage’ within schools (concentrating resources on the students who can be helped to turn Ds into Cs, at the expense of the low performers and the best)."

So now it seems the exam industry itself has geared up to provide teachers with the tools to manage triage even more effectively. And very useful they look too, as all those awe-struck teachers in the video testify.

Unsurpising really, because this is the profit maximising private sector at work.

Private sector?

Yes, that's right. Unknown to most of us, Edexcel, Britain's biggest public exam setter, is now fully owned by Pearson Plc, Britain's biggest educational publisher.
Now I have absolutely no objection to the private sector being involved in education- indeed I welcome it. But I think we can all see the faintest sliverette of a conflict there.

Even worse, what we're getting here- yet again- is a bastardised institutional arrangement which is almost guaranteed to give us the worst of both worlds. Once again, a lumbering simple shopping state monopoly is subcontracting vital services to a sharp profit maximising private sector operator.

If end customers had effective choice, that would be fine: any serious failure by the school's subcontractors would result in the school itself losing business. But in the absence of vouchers, the vast majority of school customers do not have that choice. They have to take whatever they're given by the state, even if the state allows its subcontractors to foul up completely.

ResultsPlus. Remember the name, because we should be hearing a lot more about it.
(htp Rory Geoghegan)


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