“Simon Jenkins (The cult of tests is ruining our schools, 15 June) doesn’t mention the most recent proposals from the Department for Education, to introduce “baseline tests” when children enter primary school reception classes. The stated purpose of these tests is to provide measures of “progress” between reception and year 6 when children take the key stage 2 tests. Yet the overwhelming evidence is that quick and simple tests at around four years of age are very unreliable. This makes them particularly unsuitable for use as instruments for “accountability”, which, as Jenkins points out, means league tables of schools.
There is already ample evidence that the use of tests at secondary school level to create similar “value added” measures does not lead to scientifically meaningful distinctions between schools and is of very little use for parental choice of schools. In the case of primary schools, the fundamental measurement problem will be even more problematic because of the longer seven-year time lag between reception baseline and key stage 2 outcomes; and because of the much smaller number of children in each primary school in comparison to secondary schools. We urge the government to think again about this policy before it becomes a pointless and wasteful exercise.
Professor Gemma Moss UCL Institute of Education, Professor Harvey Goldstein University of Bristol, Professor Pam Sammons University of Oxford, Professor Gemma Moss Director, International Literacy Centre, professor of literacy and past president of the British Educational Research Association (Bera). Members of the British Educational Research Association expert panel on assessment
• To whom is accountability accountable? Simon Jenkins describes collateral damage from well-intentioned attempts to hold professionals to account – in this case teachers and schools – but it happens with doctors and social workers. Does anyone do a cost-benefit analysis of these evaluations?
In education the situation is worse than Simon describes. Recognising “what you test is what you get” in most classrooms, my team and others have developed the design of “tests worth teaching to”: mathematics examinations that encourage and reward teachers whose teaching is balanced across the largely agreed learning goals. There is a proud history of such high-validity examinations in this country, reflected in the recommendations for the National Curriculum Task Group on Assessment and Testing, the government’s expert group. But then as now, the system chosen corrupted the intentions. Politicians want simple tests that produce grades that the public will accept as an accurate measure of students’ ability – though, in fact, an equivalent examination is about as likely to give a different grade, above or below. Simple tests encourage simplistic teaching. There is no substitute for a rich collection of evidence, whether it be on mathematics or, indeed, creativity. Art examinations recognise this and use portfolios of the student’s work; other subjects need that too.
In practice, few important things in human affairs can be measured simply and accurately. There is evidence that “rich dirty data”, like detailed school reports, is a better predictor of future success than “simple clean data” like exam results. What data do we use in choosing our partners, or whom to vote for?
Professor Hugh Burkhardt
University of Nottingham
• I could describe myself as a fan of Simon Jenkins in most things but must question his views on mathematics. Advanced maths, with complex numbers and on to the formulae of quantum physics, is surely as inspirationally wonderful as poetry and music. The word beautiful is not inappropriately applied to certain mathematical solutions and equations. I write as one who has spent most of his time in the arts, and with Shakespeare in particular, but, thanks to the Open University (among others), was enabled to explore maths. I learned to love the abstractions, the creativity, and the bonuses to human understanding – well beyond the constraints of our five senses.
• Simon Jenkins says: “All the maths a normal grown-up needs can be read in John Allen Paulos’s admirable 135-page booklet, Innumeracy.” What about the engineers who designed the cars, planes, ships and trains he no doubt travels on, his mobile phone, the satellite GPS system he no doubt uses, or the complex machines that keep his lights on and his gas supply running? What about the architects who design the buildings he occupies? Are they not “normal grown-ups”? Does he despise their skills, so much more important to the modern world than his own? Or is he simply unaware of their existence? Either way, he reveals his ignorance and lack of imagination.
• I wholeheartedly agree with Simon Jenkins that testing is ruining schools, but as a mathematics teacher I cannot agree with his sentiment that “Maths has been turned into a state religion, and for one reason: because proficiency in maths is easy to measure”. Proficiency in mathematics is actually difficult to measure when problems can’t be solved with standard algorithms and require initiative, creativity and logical thinking. School mathematics has been ruined because it can be mastered to a certain extent by learning algorithms. If maths has become a state religion then it is merely rituals.
Sutton Coldfield, West Midlands
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