Monday, September 07, 2009

Triumphs Of Teaching To The Test

A distinct lack of rigour

Over the weekend you may have seen the latest report on falling exam standards:

"Researchers asked 3,000 11 to 14-year- olds in England to sit maths exams taken by pupils in 1976, and compared their scores with the earlier results. Analysis suggested there was little difference between the two generations.

But among pupils from the previous generation taking O-level maths, less than a quarter gained a C or above, compared to 55% in GCSEs last year."

Setting aside the obvious point that the exams themselves have been dumbed down, the researchers attribute it to teachers getting better at teaching to the test. Dr Jeremy Hodgen, of King's College, London says:

"There's a great deal of teaching to the test, so that in trying to increase scores, schools develop an understandable focus on the test, so there's a narrowing of the curriculum."

We've blogged this before (eg here and here). The commissariat's batteries of SATs and public exams have certainly concentrated the minds of teachers: for them and their schools, failure to hit target pass rates in such "high stakes tests" is directly career threatening.

But for the pupils of course it's not such a great idea. Apart from the fact that their exam achievements have been devalued in order to boost tractor production figures, high stakes for teachers have led to so-called "triage teaching".

Triage teaching is the set-up whereby a huge amount of teaching effort is devoted to kids at or just below the critical pass mark. They're the ones who could pass or fail, and it's their success that's vital to the school's overall score. Which means that brighter children - the ones who are going to pass anyway - get left to their own devices rather than being stretched. Worse, it means that the 20% of pupils who are struggling at the bottom - the ones who are never going to pass - are pretty well written off.

Dr Hodgen and his colleagues have identified precisely this effect:

"...more pupils performed very poorly than in 1976. They suggest this may be down to the greater prevalence in 2008 of whole-class teaching which is aimed at the middle of the ability range. 'The needs of children with the lowest - and highest - achievement levels can be ignored,' they warn."

But if teaching to the test has harmed both the top and bottom of the ability range, nobody can deny that aggregate tractor production has increased. In fact, when it comes to producing maths test scores, England now apparently leads the world.

How do we know?

Because we have an international study called Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which tests thousands of 9 and 14 year olds worldwide in maths and science. And their most recent results (2007) show that England is now among the very top performers. As the government funded National Foundation for Educational Research trumpets:

"England performed at a very high level in the four TIMSS 2007 assessments: mathematics and science at both grade 4 and grade 8. Only Asian Pacific Rim countries outperformed England, but not in every assessment... Some of our European neighbours performed at a similar level to England in some assessments but none did so in all four assessments. The majority of countries participating in TIMSS 2007 were outperformed by England in all four assessments."

In maths, we outperformed the US, Germany, Italy, Holland, Australia, and even schools-of-the-future Sweden.

What's more, since the study began in 1995, our maths test scores have shown some of the biggest improvements of any country. Indeed, for 9 year olds we are the outright winner, with a bigger improvement than anyone else. No wonder ministers are so fond of quoting this report.

But how can it be we score so well? How can it be when we all think maths standards have gone to the dogs, when 20% of our school leavers are functionally innumerate, and when one-third of Cambridge University entrants with maths A grade turn out not to be up to the required standard for the maths degree course? Are we all wrong?

Nope. It's all down to teaching to the test. In that department, our bog standard state education factories have joined the world's best. When it comes to fulfilling the Gosplan exam output quota, standardised mass production has been a huge success.

It's just that one-size-fits-all education targeted on the middle 60%, does have a couple of teensy drawbacks. Not only does it waste the talents of those who have the intellectual potential to go much further, but it also fails those at the bottom who will have to live their lives never being able to fathom their credit card bills.

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