Intelligence Squared debate: Don’t end the tyranny of the test

Posted on 04-10-2015

On Thursday I spoke at an Intelligence Squared debate called ‘Let’s end the tyranny of the test: relentless school testing demeans education’. Together with Toby Young, I spoke against the motion; Tony Little and Tristram Hunt spoke for it.

There were a number of important points of agreement between the two sides. Tony Little told the story of Tom, a brilliant history student who got a U in his History A-level because his argument was essentially too sophisticated for the narrow exam rubric. I’ve known Toms in my time teaching, and I’ve also known the opposite – the student who gains top grades in exams through a mastery of the exam technique, as opposed to the subject itself. I completely agree with Tony Little that this is a real problem in our exam system. I’ve written about this in this collection of essays here, where I am critical of narrow exam syllabuses and textbooks that encourage a focus on exam structures, rather than the topic itself. For example, in this exam textbook on Germany 1919-1945, there are large sections called ‘Meeting the Examiner’ where the technicalities of the ‘8 mark question’ are discussed, but there is no detail at all on any aspect of German history outside that narrow period. In this textbook, it is more important to Meet the Examiner than it is to meet Bismarck. If you also have concerns over this phenomenon, I’d recommend reading Heather Fearn’s blogs on the subject here.

We also agreed with the proposition that blunt government targets were problematic and that teaching to the test was not a good thing (I have written more about this here), and they agreed with us that exams should always play an important part in education. However, where I felt there were central areas of disagreement were in the attitudes to exams. The proposition viewed them as essentially a necessary evil, which were in many ways inimical to good education, and whose role and impact needed to be reduced as far as possible. Tristram Hunt said that our real focus should not be on exams, but on ensuring equity in the early years, and on teacher quality. Tony Little said that our focus should not be on exams, but on ensuring a love of learning; he also said that exams ‘atomise knowledge’. It was clear that for both of them, exams were not always helpful for these other aims. Whilst I accept that in our current system this may be the case, I am convinced that exams have an important and indeed indispensable role to play in achieving these aims.  I don’t think you can improve equity, teacher quality and a love of learning without some form of reliable feedback – and exams are basically the best and most accurate method of gathering feedback that we have. In many different areas of life, improvements and innovations are often brought about by improvements in measurement and feedback. Exams are our measurement system in education, and that in some ways we misuse our measures at the moment is not an argument against measurement: as Sir Philip Sidney said, ‘shall the abuse of a thing make the right use odious?’

Where exams have gone wrong – as I fully accept they have – we have to reform them, not abolish them. And in many ways, the ways they have gone wrong is that they have drifted away from being pure exams. For example, for me, one of the problems with the kinds of history exams Tony Little rightly criticised is that they are too dependent on human judgment against abstract criteria, which we know is a very ineffective method of assessment.  I would like to see an element of multiple choice questions in such exams, which would help to eliminate such problems – but of course, multiple choice questions are exactly the type of question which receive even more criticism for ‘atomising knowledge’. Similarly, one way we could ensure greater equity in the early years is to introduce exams at KS1, rather than teacher assessments, since we have some evidence that teacher assessments at this age are biased against pupils from a low-income background – but again, if you suggest replacing teacher assessments with tests, you generally do not get a great response. So this, for me, was the difference between the two sides: we both acknowledged the flaws in the current exam system, and both had very similar aims for education, but on our side, we felt that the problems could be solved by wiser use of exams, and perhaps even more of them, whereas for the proposition, they felt that there should just be fewer exams, that they should be of less importance, and that there should be more extended project-type assessments.

In my speech itself, I had two main arguments. First, I argued that exams were accurate and less subject to bias than other methods of assessment, such as teacher assessment and coursework. This is a well-established finding in the literature, but it is curiously little-known. Teacher assessment is frequently biased against disadvantaged pupils, but people assume again and again that actually, such assessment helps these pupils. I will write more about this in the future, but if you are interested in it, then my article in the Policy Exchange collection of essays here has more on this, and Rob Coe’s video here does too. I also argued that properly designed tests really do predict things of value. For example, this fascinating study by Benbow and Lubinski tracked top scorers on the American SAT at age 13. At age 38, many of them had gone on to achieve remarkable things, and not just in the predictable areas of business and academia – many of them excelled in the creative professions too. And the American SAT is the kind of test that many would criticise for ‘atomising knowledge’, or for just being, as David Baddiel says here, a kind of ‘cognitive trick’. This is not true, and it fundamentally misunderstands how tests work.  Questions on tests do not have to look exactly like the kind of problems we face in real life in order to provide useful information about how we might do on such real-life problems.

My second argument was that testing was also a useful pedagogical technique. We know from Bjork’s research on the testing effect that straining to recall something, as we do in a test, actually helps us to recall it in future. We also know that practice testing is a very effective revision technique: much more effective than the more common approach of rereading notes and highlighting them. The frequently-heard line about how ‘weighing the pig isn’t the same as feeding it’ is false: in the case of education, weighing the pig is the same as feeding it. Testing actually helps you to learn.

We narrowly lost the debate, and afterwards I spoke to a number of pupils in the audience whose experiences of exams were similar to those of Tom’s above, and who were therefore understandably sceptical of the value of exams. It’s worrying that this is happening, and it makes reform of our exam system all the more important. This same pattern – misuse of exams leading to widespread mistrust of them – has also been seen in the US, and has been outlined brilliantly by Daniel Koretz in Measuring Up. Koretz is at pains to point out the incredibly valuable information we can get from apparently ‘narrow’ standardised tests, but he is also very critical of the No Child Left Behind Act, and the teaching to the test and gaming it has encouraged. I completely agree with both his points, but it’s a combination of views that feels very rare: often, it feels as though if you are in favour of tests, you must be in favour of teaching to them; and if you are worried about how tests are being used, you must be in favour of abolishing them. It would be nice to open up space for a more Koretz-esque view of tests in this country. A confrontational debate may not be the best way of doing this, but I did enjoy it, and I hope it did at least pique some people’s