Tyrannosaurus test

Last night I popped into London to attend the entertaining Intelligence Squared debate on whether testing demeans education. Outside the Emmanuel Centre in Westminster the glittering educators of the capital filed into the debating chamber, one lady perusing her copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. The main question seemed to be whether regular school testing helps students to flourish or actually hinder development. So what do we think? Is standardised testing a tyrant king with no regard for anything other than soulless data collection? Or does it have a place in the ever changing modern world? I suspect no sensible educator would fall at either extreme of this spectrum, but nevertheless the debate was interesting and amusing in equal measure. Summer Turner has written up her thoughts with usual thoughtful-panache so if you are only going to read one blog on the event read no further and click away.

First up and for the motion was Tristram Hunt, former Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Member of Parliament for Stoke-on-Trent Central. He cut quite a dash up at the lectern. I could quite easily see why it is such a loss that he has resigned from the Shadow Cabinet. In fact much of the audience were left wondering what might have been by the end of his persuasive speaking. Out came the easy on the ear soundbite that students need to be “learning skills for jobs that don’t yet exist” and that tests were not suitable preparation for the workforce. Throughout the evening Hunt was an incredibly good sport, taking gentle jibes and digs about currently inhabiting the political wilderness with good humour and class. He started his address with “Friends, Comrades” to much mirth and towards the end referenced “frenzied Corbynistas.”

Next came Daisy Chirstodoulou, she of Seven Myths, speaking against the motion. Recently she has written several excellent blogs on the subject of assessment, therefore it was no surprise that she constructed a logical and reasoned case for testing (in fact I don’t think either sides of the house wanted to dispose of testing completely) and more tests in particular. One main foundation of this argument was the hidden bias of other assessment methods, Christodoulou ascertained that teacher assessment discriminates against low income pupils and therefore testing should replace such an unequal practice. It was at this point I lost the specific reference she used but her suggestion that tests are fairer resonated with some parts of the audience. In all her speech was a barnstorming and surprisingly emotive appeal to equality by declaring testing a fairer method. At this point I felt convinced that relentless testing was a necessary and useful tool in education’s arsenal. Since the debate Christodoulou has written up the experience which is well worth checking out.

Tony Little was close to persuading me to reconsider throughout much of his discourse. Much came from his wonderfully titled An Educated Person’s Guide to Education, the content of which I absorbed while on holiday this summer. For this reason hearing Little regal and bring to life the chapters of the book was an immersive and trans-medium experience. According to his address we are a juggernaut at full speed heading off a cliff by persisting with a regime of testing for testing’s sake. In his own words “we’ve allowed the exam testing business to go too far…we run the risk of being slaves to data.” He spoke at our Prize Giving ceremony three years ago and from this I know that Little does value achievements beyond GCSE and A level, particularly the former of which it was clear would be the tests that would be ditched. Additionally the wonderful Centre for Innovation and Research in Learning that was one of his final acts as Headmaster of Eton College is testament to his dedication to a broader approach to learning; one only needs to look around the incredibly impressive space to know there is a purposeful exploration of improving education and thus avoiding the “shrinking curriculum.” However, he still did not quite explain what might take the place of the current state of affairs.

And then to Toby Young, so often providing an alternative view point on education. It seemed to me that his premise was to take down those for the motion, perhaps a sensible tactic but also one that might alienate the undecided (although this is maybe my meek agreeability coming to the fore). In this vein he joyously pointed out Tristram Hunt’s opposition to decoupling the AS from the A level in response to, former Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove’s recommendations; in doing so pointing out the obvious that this would have meant more exams. Quite a change of tune indeed. Where Young was particularly strong was taking down the idea that testing in education was removed from the kinds of tests faced in the workplace. Again the theme of equality, or perhaps inequality, was seized upon “an atmosphere of healthy competition and regular testing” is key to helping disadvantaged pupils.

After some questions from the audience (some were even genuine questions!) we were ready to hear the result. It transpired that the result was not ready for us and, chair for the night, Sir Anthony Seldon put to use his improvisational skills (I wonder if Wellington College have lessons for improv?) to fill time. Asking ostensibly Tristram Hunt, but more accurately the gentlemen to his right, whether he would like to be a Headmaster Tony Little amusingly intercepted with “are you asking me?” However, my favourite and beautifully superfluous question was asking Daisy Christodoulou what her favourite myth was (answer you can always just look it up), proceeding to then ask what her second favourite was (projects and activities are the best way to learn). Before we had a complete count down from one to seven the results were in. Those for the motion had convinced the most people to change their minds and so it was we had collectively resolved to end the tyranny of the test.

As always debate and discussion engender a self-reflection that otherwise might not have come about. For me there were several questions that lay unanswered, the two most pertinent being:

  1. What are the alternatives to standardised testing?
  2. Does testing suit certain subjects over others?

In particular question two raises the issue of how we examine or assess creative subjects. Although I will be continuing on with my end-of-topic and end-of-year tests in Biology, I am not so absurd to reason that this approach works for Drama or Design and Technology. In what is becoming one of my favourite phrases at the moment, there is of course no “one-size fits all”, tyrant test or not.

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