A test too far

©André Faber

There may be no magic bullet for raising student achievement. Nor is there any getting away from having to invest in teaching and learning. Testing does not provide the full answer.

Who would disagree that education and training are among the most significant investments a society can make for its own development? Not many, though it begs the question: why, then, have so many countries allowed public investment in education and training to lag growth in national wealth?

How ironic that OECD countries should all have experienced an unprecedented economic boom we know to have been knowledge-driven, yet, rather than investing more in learning, we allow schools to become a new prime target for budget-conscious politicians to scrutinise and cut in the name of betterment.

Even some so-called left-leaning governments have chopped public investment in schools by offering a menu of false alternatives, from performance testing of young children, to vouchers for parents to “spend” in schools of their choice, as though they really had a choice. Weeding out underperforming teachers has been another new strategy, though one that risks blaming a victim. Teachers often need help, not punishment.

At the end of the day, to improve education and raise standards, as everyone from taxpayers to educators wants to do, investment has to be increased. True, more funding in itself is not sufficient to improve the quality of education, as the results from the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) suggest. But neither is it convincing to infer that decreased funding will somehow lead to improving the quality of learning and teaching. It certainly will not.

Trade unions support the goal of boosting the educational achievements of students. However, is compulsory nationwide testing for students and teachers the way to go? This one-size-fits-all approach is a school cane in the hand of demagogues, and it is quite dangerous to apply it in a modern world of diverse knowledge needs, growing competition and widening inequity within and between countries. Let’s face it: tests are open to abuse and misinterpretation. Moreover, many of the qualities required for successful and effective teaching – passion, dedication and satisfaction of teaching – are qualities that cannot be captured by a test. Still, higher educational achievement is possible, everyone is united on that. However, simply raising performance standards in order to achieve better educational outcomes is not going to work. You cannot expect a “formula one” performance from a regular car. The concept of raising the quality of learning and teaching must be linked to investing in the inputs. And that includes equity, by ensuring that teachers are equipped and that no student is left behind, and that all students are covered by the curriculum.

In too many instances, education policymakers are viewing standards as just another top-down reform, divorced from the needs and realities of the classroom. Moreover, they are paying too little attention to developing the curriculum needed for achieving those standards. The professional development and support required for children at risk are often either unavailable or of questionable quality. Tests unrelated to the standards and curricula, like multiple-choice tests designed to measure how well a person has learned a specific set of information, are being imposed with negative consequences on students, teachers and schools.

If we want every student to reach higher standards, education policy-makers and governments must pay more attention to proper implementation. Underperformance is rarely entirely the fault of young people. Sufficient resources must be made available to get the job done properly. Teachers (as well as parents) must understand what the goals are and how to reach them. They must be offered opportunities for professional development that focus on knowledge formation, effective and innovative instruction, and acquiring the assessment tools necessary for helping young people to make progress toward meeting higher standards.

Governments have a role to play to ensure that teachers and their unions have a voice in the development of standards and in how to align curricula to meet learning objectives. Expecting teachers to stay out of the development, implementation and evaluation of standardised tests infuriates and demoralises the profession. It is a strategy whose logic would fail any test. Governments must provide resources to ensure that all children, especially those In poor areas, have properly trained teachers who get the additional support and time they need to reach their own goals and ambitions. This is not rocket science, just common sense.

The call for raising the quality of learning and teaching by implementing higher standards and high-stake tests, and by making schools accountable is politically appealing. However, in the absence of a significant investment in school education and in the training of teachers that would pull all young students up to the new standards, the move to implement new testing regimes is disturbing. “Highstakes” testing, such as The Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) that is required for graduation and used diagnostically in the lower grades, has been promoted by education policymakers and governments as a way to raise standards, particularly among poor and disadvantaged students. However, it has been shown in a number of cases to adversely affect the quality of education for these students. Not surprisingly, members of teachers and education trade unions, education administrators and parents are worried. Listen to the administrators, who complain that these tests are making it harder, not easier, to recruit, train and keep good and committed school teachers, particularly in the public sector.

Inside the classroom, the regime of the test is gaining dominance. Learning is oriented to simply passing the exam, rather than toward knowledge and personal development, or preparation for adult life. This is to be expected, since a rigid “pass or fail” regime – with financial carrots and sticks for educators and institutions – encourages (or scares) teachers into spending more class time drilling students to answer questions, with little left to explore the substance of the curriculum and to learn together. Can knowledge really be boiled down to a few Xeroxed notes and Q&As? If so, the backbone of tomorrow’s knowledge-based society risks becoming very fragile indeed.

In the scramble by schools to maintain achievement levels and avoid “the drop”, educators have themselves fuelled the creation and ongoing expansion of a global testing industry, with huge financial stakes and its own vested interest in further growth. More and more specialized companies, among them the publishing giant Pearson PLC, Kaplan, Inc., and The Princeton Review, to name but a few major business players, are providing schools with software and facilitators to coach students for tests. This is making test-taking a skill in itself. Passing exams is becoming more like clinching a job interview than knowing the subject. The size of the assessment industry and its rapid growth are bound up with the budget-saving agendas of every educational authority in the world. It facilitates so-called “educational reform”. The OECD promotes the same advice for education as it does for the energy industry: that efficiency means extracting more from less, whereas in education we must derive more, but put in at least a necessary minimum.

Already, standard-based reforms have brought costs: rising dropout rates, demoralised and deskilled teachers, administrators manipulating their figures to appear better than they are for the sake of maintaining their schools.

There is a simple conclusion to be drawn from all this: policies seriously seeking to raise the quality of learning and teaching must provide more help and fewer sanctions, particularly to low performing students and schools. They must also go beyond fantasies about attainment levels and focus on the composition of the classroom and learning itself. Improve the inputs and you get a better output, which is what we need. Knowledge changes, and what matters to adults today may be irrelevant in our children’s lives. It is about teaching people to create and deal with new futures, not preserving static, one-sizefits- all prescriptions. Success in education is much more than about avoiding failure. Yet, the danger is that the new obsession with performance testing, rather than building knowledge, will drag everyone downwards to a safe level of competence. “Education for all” will just be another mantra. Excellence will become a privilege, genius a luxury, but society as a whole will be impoverished as a result.


Bowles, S., Gintis, H. (2001), “Schooling in Capitalist America Revisited, November 2001”, at: http://www.umass.edu/preferen/gintis/ soced.pdf or click "Bowles" link below. 

GEW (2003), Nationale Bildungsstandards – Wundermittel oder Teufelszeug?, Frankfurt, at: http://www.gew.de/standpunkt/aschlagzeilen/ schule/bildungsstandards/texte/bildungsstandards.pdf or "GEW" link below. 

Symonds, W.C. (2001) “How to fix America’s Schools” Business Week, cover story, 19 March 2001, at: http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/ content/01_12/b3724001.htm or "Symonds" link below. 

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“Raising Standards and Tackling Workload: A National Agreement”, an agreement on workforce reform in the UK, signed by DfES, the employers and education unions on 15 January 2003, at: http://www.askatl.org.uk/ pdfs/150103a.pdf or "Raising standards" link below.

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©OECD Observer No 242, March 2004

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