This summer students in England sat the new-style “closed book” English Literature GCSE exam. This exam prohibits candidates from having the set texts with them to refer to. They cannot look in the book for material to illustrate, support and develop their thinking.
Instead, in their answers they must rely on what they remember, and on what they have predetermined to say (or been primed to say) to questions whose nature has been predicted by them or their teachers. The exam is thus set up to reward question-spotting and the fluent regurgitation of received or rehearsed ideas, while actively denying students the opportunity to respond to literature as one might hope: individually, authentically, and in a way directly resourced and informed by the text in the light of the given question.
A mechanism for thwarting the display of knowledge and skills in the guise of enabling it, the new-style English Literature GCSE might stand as a proxy for England’s current high-stakes public testing and examination system as a whole. This system has constricted the curriculum, hamstrung pedagogy, and subordinated assessment to testing,. High time to replace it.
Education policy is not simply handed down to schools and complied with. Nonetheless, government has the most power to regulate the policy-field and shape the discourse within and around it. Oversight of the National Curriculum, coupled with various kinds of high-stakes testing such as the “phonics check” and SATs, enables government to reach directly into every maintained school and unignorably influence the content of courses and the working-practices of teachers.
Ministerial pronouncements about exams — their shaping of the discourse — provide a further means of intervention. As the National Curriculum loses sway over an increasingly-academised maintained sector, the role of national public testing and examination becomes more significant in maintaining central government’s influence over what happens in schools. Public testing rivets the iron framework of accountability.
That framework is made up of school performance tables (whereby schools are ranked on the basis of headline scores) and floor targets (externally-set minimum requirements for the proportion of pupils who must secure given scores). Schools, and hence teachers, must operate within it. In the current system, public tests (including GCSE and A Level exams) serve different, and potentially-incompatible, ends.
Regarded as simulacra of what young people know, understand and can do, scores in public tests over the duration of compulsory education are meant to indicate the extent to which an individual has made progress and so is eligible for a given next step. They are meant to signal the rate of such progress, and so legitimise intervention.
Ultimately they are meant to credentialise each person as they quit the education system and come to sell their labour-power. There’s meant to be an extrinsic benefit for securing scores, as well as intrinsic benefit for having engaged with the educational process. How far those who secure low grades, or no grades, see it this way is open to question. Their experience testifies to the inadequacy of the current set-up.
Simultaneously, public test scores are used as evidence through which to hold schools accountable for the progress of cohorts of pupils, and as the objective means to compare one school with another. School scores judged inadequate incur a range of sanctions. Decline in league table position risks loss of intake, or change in the nature of the intake, with implications for funding, for future scores and hence for league table position. In such a system, what is rationally in the interests of the school can conflict with what is good for the individual pupil.
Enforced by the framework of league tables, floor targets and “datafication”, the prioritising of scores has tended to narrow the curriculum offer, impoverish classroom activity, reinforce the early labelling of children by so-called “ability”, and excuse their being grouped in ways which are educationally detrimental. In some schools, young people are drilled week after week for SATs, or denied the opportunity to study art or music or dance, or launched upon GCSE courses at the start of Year 9 rather than Year 10, or entered for the same exam with more than one exam-board, and so on, in the hope that this will boost test-scores.
Such a system confronts many teachers with a profound professional dilemma. The work of assessing someone’s educational development is complex, nuanced, and always provisional. It is undertaken the better to plan teaching. But it is trumped by test-scores. One consequence is pressure on teachers to teach-the-test. But teachers did not become teachers to do this. Nor to compile endless “data” about pupil-performance while their professional understanding of those they teach, their complex, nuanced assessment, is disregarded. They did not become teachers to comply with policies which contravene their own educational values.
A commitment by Tory, Coalition, and New Labour administrations to a market-based approach to the public service of education has generated this situation. It is paid for out of public money. Maintained schools use public money to pay the entrance fee for students to take public tests and exams, and for other test-related services. These costs can be very large.
Public money funds the setting, scrutinising and distributing of question papers, their collection and marking, the appeals process, and related aspects of the system as administered by “awarding bodies” or exam boards. But in England the ‘awarding bodies’ are not part of the public sector.
Two of the big three have the status of charities, while one is a commercial operation, part of the Pearson global edu-business. Pearson owns Edexcel and has the contract to assess SATs. A private company, it pays dividends to share holders and high salaries to executives, thereby siphoning public funds into private pockets. The CEOs of the other two awarding bodies each earn in the region of £200k, a salary significantly higher than the average for the charity sector, and higher than the salaries paid to CEOs in other of the biggest charities. These payments likewise come from public funds.
Does high cost ensure high quality? A small number of this summer’s GCSE and A Level exams yet again contained a question impossible to answer because of its wording or through the omission of necessary information. Opportunities for re-marking have been scaled back, and fees for it raised, even though around 16% of GCSE grades subject to appeal are likely to be altered. Academics have long exposed systemic problems with the validity of SATs scores assigned to cohorts, not just individuals. Evidence mounts for the worthlessness of the “phonics check”.
High stakes public testing will generate practices reasonably regarded as dishonest. Instances have arisen in relation especially to Key Stage 2 SATs. This year, staff at several major public schools leaked information about post-16 exam-questions to students, prompting an investigation.
A socialist approach to public certification of the student body would not be guided by faith in markets. Reform of public exams might begin by dispensing with GCSE, taken at 16, since what was once the age at which many ended their education is now a way-station for young people expected to stay in education or training for at least another year or two and gain a further qualification. Scrapping league tables and floor-targets would enable the testing and exam stakes to be lowered for schools.
This would afford scope for discussion about curriculum-development, and allow teachers to re-assert their central role in the practice of educational assessment. National, and/or regional, sampling of student performance could replace the current blanket approach, and offer a new direction for such accountability as is deemed necessary. Assessment must work for young people But without a reconstructed view of what it means to assess learning, a return to the reductivism of testing, of scores, will always be on the cards.
Along with practical change must come a change of mind about assessment, of which public testing is properly a minor sub-set. To assess is to observe and attempt to understand learning through a continuing process: collect evidence, make sense of it, evaluate it, and consider the outcomes so that this new understanding can enhance the learning of individuals and groups. Assessment focuses not on what the learner has done, but on what they are about to do. Unlike testing, it faces forward. One starting-point for reform might be the principle that educational assessment must work first and foremost for young people. What matters most is their learning, which is intimately bound up with the activity called “assessment”. The claims of the school and “the economy” cannot take precedence.
The current system is predicated on neoliberal views about the purpose of education. It labels as failures swathes of young people, assigns a limited technicist role to teachers, misconceives educational progress as linear, and supplants educational assessment with measurement by test. We can be wiser in the way we re-construct the curriculum, acknowledge young people’s educational rights, harness teachers’ expertise and dedication, and enable schools to be accountable.
This is not to endorse a laissez-faire approach. Nor is it to privilege teacher autonomy. Teachers, and schools, are better seen not as autonomous but as responsible. Recognising the daily willingness by education workers to be responsible, to undertake their responsibilities to young people and colleagues as best they can, is the basis from which to build. Make the system more responsible, which is to say more responsive, from within.
To this end, the current testing and examination system, for too long an external imposition constructed to shape and constrain teaching and learning, should be scrapped.
Schools union to discuss call to abolish exams
The Confederation of British Industry and the Financial Times have called for GCSE exams to be scrapped, and the Institute of Directors has said that the UK is turning “schools into exam factories”. The critique of excessive exams is even more valid from a humanist and democratic point of view than from the point of view of fitting students for future labour. Yet, oddly, the generally left-wing National Union of Teachers (now part of the National Education Union) has no policy for scrapping exams. Its 2015 report “Exam Factories?” was much more timid.
In November, NUT branches will discuss motions to go to the Easter 2018 conference of the NUT section of NEU. Workers’ Liberty school workers will be promoting, among other proposals, a motion calling for the abolition of GCSE, the abolition of school data and tracking systems based on exam targets, and the nationalisation of exam boards.
• Full text of that draft motion, and others here