New Internationalist

Testing, Testing, 123

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issue 315

new internationalist
issue 315 - August 1999

Testing, testing, 123
The drive for more tests and school league tables is
sweeping the world. Education is being turned into
an industry. But how do you test a child’s
imagination? Or measure their spirit?

Anum Khan was seven when she died in a fire started by arsonists at her home; her older brother was also killed when he went into the burning house to try to save her. Her death plunged two communities that she belonged to into shock: the Muslim community in East Oxford and our school. The weeks that followed taught me that schools at their best are not just places where children learn facts, skills or patterns of behaviour; they are both a vital part of the community they serve and places that nurture the whole child – hearts and spirits, as well as minds.

Instead of noting Anum’s death with sadness and then simply moving on with business, as might have been expected, headteacher Tony Eaude and the staff recognized that they had an important role to play in helping children to understand and cope with the loss of a friend – and in helping Anum’s family in their grief.

Window on wonder. Schools are more than just testing factories. These children in Ghana don't need telling.
RON GILING / STILL PICTURES

Children were encouraged to think about what Anum had meant to them – they wrote their own messages to her in a special book that was kept open for a whole term before being given to her family; they wrote poems and drew pictures in her honour that remained on display throughout that school year. There was a memorial assembly in her honour to which many members of her wider family came. This could easily have been an awkward affair, consumed by mawkishness or, worse, full of Muslim toes being trodden on by heavy Christian feet. Instead it was beautifully handled and deeply felt, as moving a tribute to the memory of this young girl as any memorial service for one of the great and the good in Westminster Abbey.

This was, for me, the best kind of spiritual education. I have no particular religious faith myself and am, to be honest, still slightly bemused at having succeeded the local vicar as chair of governors of a Church of England school (almost exactly a third of British state schools are still, bizarrely, overseen by the Anglican or Catholic churches; the first state Islamic school was approved in London last year). My position would be impossible in most other church schools but the fact that a third of the children are Muslim (and probably another third are agnostic or atheist) has made it essential for this particular school to develop a sensitive, multicultural language. It is not just that the key festivals of Islam and Judaism are acknowledged, but that children are taught about the importance of the inner life in a way that all can understand – cultivating a sense of wonder or concentrating on a candle flame in silence, for example, rather than through scriptural assertions that Jesus was the son of God.

Triple threat
Yet the ability of the school to look after the wider needs of the whole child – and by that I mean not just this spiritual area, but also things like an appreciation of art and music, a moral and critical understanding of the world they live in – is now under threat. The threat comes from triple obsessions which are currently sweeping through the entire Western world: standardized testing of children; judging schools by their place in exam league tables; and a back-to-basics drive on numeracy and literacy.

An eight-year-old boy I know well wet his bed every night last week, for the first time in years. This was mystifying until his parents realized that it coincided with the week in which he was doing standardized tests. There is nothing riding on these particular tests, yet he had become convinced that somehow they would determine his whole future, would place him in the ‘bottom’ or ‘top’ group at his next school.

Up and down the country anecdotal evidence abounds of huge tranches of classroom time being given over to preparation for tests. Even teachers who tell children not to worry contribute to the sense of crisis by making it clear that their school will be judged by the results – as indeed it will be in the current climate. Testing can be a useful diagnostic tool; one piece of information that can be used alongside teacher assessments and regular course work to track children’s progress. But it has become an omnipotent obsession.

Consider also my five-year-old daughter who came home from school last week and explained in fairly precise terms to her bemused English-graduate parents what was meant by a ‘homophone’ and an ‘ellipsis’. This will be an experience shared in all quarters of Britain, since it is a product of the new National Literacy Strategy under which all children of primary age have to be taught literacy for a full hour every day.

To be fair, standards of literacy are giving legitimate cause for concern right across the English-speaking world. And when English teachers can report (as my partner did last week) that their most able students have managed to make it through the education system to the age of 18 without knowing what nouns, verbs and adjectives are, then it is clear that the drive in the post-1960s period to get away from rigid grammar drills was maybe just a tad too successful.

But the absurdity of expecting children just out of playschool to learn technical grammatical terms will be evident to everyone but the Government ministers who imposed the scheme – and that’s without taking into account the bewilderment of those of my daughter’s classmates who, speaking only Bengali or Pashto, are required to learn that a word is broken up into ‘phonemes’.

Working the league
The ‘back-to-basics’ campaign is gripping the Western world with increasing force. Educationists and teachers are being forced to play the numbers game. Politicians who traditionally would not have bothered much about schools except as photo opportunities have started screaming that there are press stories about, say, a former Communist country like the Czech Republic outperforming Western countries by a mile in the international league table for mathematics and science (see Top of the global class, chart below).

This has led to a general concern to ‘raise standards’ in education, which increasingly means judging schools’ success by the results their students achieve in standardized tests. Schools are now required to publish these results and have them tabulated in league tables against other schools both locally and nationally. The routine assumption of even quite intelligent people looking at these school league tables is that like is somehow being compared with like. In fact, of course, a school’s results will depend far more on its location than on its teaching standards. An inner-city school with a high proportion of children from poor backgrounds or whose home language is different may have worked miracles to achieve test scores that are, in bald terms, a quarter as good as those of a school in a comfortable suburban neighbourhood where most parents have benefited from higher education.

The US has tested students at specified ages since 1969, yet it is only since 1990, in response to increased public and political interest, that state-by-state comparisons have been published.1 All but two states – Nebraska and Iowa – now use standardized tests. The testing is often of the ‘high-stakes’ kind – in other words it can make or break children’s lives, the results determining whether they progress to the next grade or make it to college. For years these tests involved simply shading in answers to multiple-choice questions; most now include writing an essay. This sounds like an improvement until you hear how these essays are graded. In the case of the children from 24 US states they are all graded in the same place: by the private firm Measurement Inc in North Carolina, which employs college-educated jobbers with no teaching qualifications to read and rate hundreds of papers a day.

One such reader was freelance photographer Julian Harrison, who once graded 10,700 papers in two months. ‘There were times I’d be reading a paper every ten seconds,’ he said. ‘It was horrific... You could skim them very quickly,’ he went on. ‘You could actually – I know this sounds bizarre – put a number on these things without reading the paper.’ Given this kind of approach to marking, it is small wonder that errors occur, as in the case of Neha Rana, who failed the writing test and as a result was demoted from an ‘A-class’ where she was writing research papers to a ‘C-class’. She spent months doing remedial work until her school queried the result and Measurement Inc admitted their mistake.2

Even if the assessment were more accurate, this kind of colour-by-numbers approach to education would still be profoundly disturbing (see Dancin’ Circles). It is no coincidence that among the earliest advocates of testing and raising standards were key corporate moguls like Louis Gerstner of IBM, whose ‘vision’ could have come out of his own company’s mission statement but has since been taken up by politicians of every hue (and cry). It is now routine for education to be seen in economic terms – Tony Blair’s New Labour sees it as essential to making Britain ‘competitive’; Macquarie University in Sydney proudly boasts ‘Where Higher Learning Means Higher Earning’.

The education production line
Education in the West is fast becoming indistinguishable from any other industry, complete with marketing brochures and mission statements, teachers on performance-related pay and schools competing with each other to produce ever-higher grades. You have special needs? You’re disabled? You’re from a rough housing estate? Sorry, but schools have to protect their reputations, you know...

[image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Source: International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, 1997. [image, unknown]
Source: International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, 1997. [image, unknown]

And as the basics of literacy, numeracy and the ‘core curriculum’ take over, so the wider wonders of art, music, the insights of history, geography and social studies are squeezed into the margins. In Oregon, for example, new tests are based on state standards that remove from the high-school social-studies curriculum virtually everything before the last decade of the nineteenth century, which means ‘no early European/Native American contacts, no American Revolution, no slavery or slave resistance, no Abolition Movement, no Civil War, no building of the railroads, no Reconstruction.’3 What takes the place of this kind of material is increasingly a curriculum that ensures the power of the dominant culture, usually in the interests of ‘national unity’.

But, again, progressive people in education have to look at themselves, since this kind of right-wing agenda would not have gained ground so quickly if there were not some substance to its claims. For too long educators and policy-makers have failed to focus on the vast difference between what is taught in schools and what is learned. This has certainly been true of the developing world, which has been understandably preoccupied with the vast effort to deliver sufficient schools and teachers to keep pace with demand.

There is unfortunately every possibility that a child can attend school and yet learn next to nothing from the experience. A recent World Bank national household survey in Bangladesh, for example, found that five years of primary schooling resulted in only a first-grade equivalent of learning achievement, while three years of schooling had a value of approximately zero.

This is hardly surprising when you consider the standard diet of rote-learning, hectoring and lecturing that passes for teaching in an average Bangladeshi school. We cannot expect every child to be clamouring to get into the schools of the South if what they find inside is so deeply uninspiring. The better education reforms in the South are increasingly committed to fostering child-centred techniques in the classroom, with mixed success (see IDEAL and reality).

There is a profound irony in this by which I was deeply struck as I worked on the UNICEF report. The rich world, as I’ve outlined, seems hell-bent on rooting out creative, child-centred teaching and learning in order to resuscitate many of the practices of The Good Old Days (a recent issue of The Economist went so far as to caption a drawing of a Victorian school with precisely those words). Well, I went to school before those Old Days were quite done. I experienced having to move seats each week according to the position I’d achieved in a test; I remember all too well being bored to distraction by Gradgrindian teachers whose idea of a creative lesson was to get a pupil to read out a page of a textbook instead of simply doing it themselves. Golden Age? Not on your life.

Rescuing the spirit
In the Majority World, by contrast, the trend, if anything, is in the opposite direction. Many, perhaps most schools, of course, have to make do with next to no equipment and class sizes twice as big as those thought normal in the West. But where it is at all possible, the emphasis is on introducing more child-centred, flexible methods.

A former contributor to the NI, Anna Robinson-Pant, recently returned to Britain after years of living in Nepal and was struck by exactly this: ‘having our seven-year-old joining school here, I can’t help feeling the contradictions: there, I was a development worker promoting participatory innovative education, whereas here we come back to more and more emphasis on “standardization”, the 3 Rs, phonics etc.’

In the kindergarten of the Gemini Trust, which looks after twins in Addis Ababa.
PIETRO CENINI /
PANOS PICTURES

Among the innovative techniques being used in Nepal at the moment are those of Shikshak Samakhya, otherwise known as Joyful Learning, a movement which began in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh in 1992 and has since spread to ten other states, as well as other countries in South Asia. It is based on the belief that all primary teachers can be motivated and successful if they receive sufficient trust, support and guidance. Teachers pledge to teach with enthusiasm and to incorporate song and dance as well as simple, locally made teaching aids. Now, says Sardar Singh Rathore, a headteacher from Madhya Pradesh’s Dhar district, ‘Not only are they enjoying their teaching in the classrooms but they have been able to make it so interesting that children are eager to come to school.’ And when school has to battle constantly against children being pulled into work, that eagerness is vital.

This empowerment of teachers is necessary not just in India but all over the world. The traditional image of the teacher as a wise and respected figure in the community, bearing the torch of learning to the next generation, seems sadly inappropriate given the diminished status and demoralized state of the teaching profession worldwide. In the early 1990s the Second ILO Meeting on the Conditions of Work of Teachers concluded that the situation of teachers had reached ‘an intolerably low point’ – their working conditions were being drastically eroded and an exodus of qualified and experienced teachers was resulting.4

‘Teachers have seen a massive decline in their status,’ says Mary Hatwood Futrell, President of the umbrella teacher union Education International. ‘They are asked to work long hours for a salary that has rarely kept pace with inflation; they often work with only a few materials of very poor quality... and more and more time is spent on needless administration brought about by constantly changing government policies.’5

Teachers, like children, have become subject to the productivist view of education which runs the risk of seeing teachers as just another ‘input’, not quite as costly as a classroom but much more costly than a textbook.

But schools are not factories whose success is measured in the number of children churned out at the end. Education’s success can only be gauged according to what children have learned, in the skills, lively minds and values they carry with them into life beyond school. The teacher is no less vital to that learning experience than she or he has ever been. The modern world may be bursting at the seams with information but: ‘You need a teacher to sort out the information from the data that surrounds the student; you need a good teacher to sort out the knowledge from the information; you need an excellent teacher to sort out the wisdom from the knowledge.’6

Tony Eaude, the local headteacher I mentioned earlier, put it similarly in a speech to colleagues when he left the job last year, urging them not to lose sight of what matters amid the onslaught of Education as Production Line. ‘I was told a story many years ago by a headteacher from Kenya. He was now head of the school where he had learnt as a young boy. The children were often taught outside, keeping out of the heat in the shade of great trees. When he was young, like so many children, he had planted seeds; returning 50 years later, he realized that he had planted not only trees, but classrooms for the future.

‘As you plant, never plant only one tree. Plant three – one for shade, one for fruit, and one for beauty.'

1 Vincent Greaney and Thomas Kellaghan, Monitoring the Learning Outcomes of Education Systems, World Bank 1996.
2 Quoted in David Glovin, ‘Welcome to Measurement Inc’, Rethinking Schools, Spring 1999.
3 Bill Bigelow, ‘Tests from Hell’, Rethinking Schools, Spring 1999.
4 Cited in The Learning of Those Who Teach: Towards a New Paradigm of Teacher Education, UNICEF/UNESCO.
5 Education News, Feb 1997, UNICEF.
6 Victor Ordonez, keynote address to the International Conference on ‘Partnerships in Teacher Development for a New Asia’, 6-8 December 1995.

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