Are we becoming slaves to standardised testing?

Are we becoming slaves to standardised testing?

Taking part in a panel debate at the Global Educational Skills Forum in Dubai, Simon Lebus opposed the motion - 'This house believes we are we becoming slaves to testing and standardised assessment' You can read his address in full below and watch a recording of the debate HERE.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a pleasure to be here today to debate whether we are becoming slaves to standardised testing. As we have heard it is a subject that arouses strong feelings. Testing is after all one of the most powerful instruments of educational change and control and as such one of the "Testing is one of the most powerful instruments of educational change."

most controversial. It is also one of the most universally shared and public of our educational experiences – Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist thinker, expressed this graphically when he talked of his nephew’s school exams as being "a much more important thing than the first communion".

It is also important to be aware that this is a relatively recent development in education. Large scale testing was not introduced into schools until about 160 years ago, pioneered among others by my own organisation, and then, as now, the idea was to establish general standards, offer some sort of "... it has become a battlefield for a proxy culture war."

quality assurance for pupils and parents, and provide externally verified certification that could be relied on by Universities and employers. Since then it has both grown hugely and become hugely controversial. Why?

My suggestion is that it has become the battlefield for a proxy culture war about educational philosophy and objectives.

How so? First of all some context. We now live, like it or not, in a credentialist world. Globalisation, the advance of technology and science, population "We now live, like it or not, in a credentialist society."

mobility, professional specialisation, the development of a low-trust society accompanied by widespread resort to legal challenge and loss of respect for professional elites, all these things have increased the demand for standardised tests. That is a well-established fact of life – it will not change any time soon so it is better to recognise it and manage its implications for education constructively.

Also relevant is that this is an age of democratised mass education, in which governments prioritise the need to educate their population and invest resources accordingly. Those governments, for their own democratic legitimacy, need to be able to demonstrate that they have been spending that "... governments prioritise the need to educate their population and invest resources accordingly."

money effectively and show that their policies have improved educational outcomes; that too drives a demand for standardised qualifications which can then be used for accountability, and that too is not something that is going to go away.

The consequence of this is that modern societies’ demand for examinations has increased several fold and they now serve multiple purposes: as well as certifying attainment and providing measures that are used for accountability, they are also used to define the curriculum and help structure teaching and learning, as well as for sorting and selecting students. Combining those things together unquestionably creates difficulties, and can lead to problems "These things are better tackled by improving the quality of the exams rather than resisting them as a form of educational bondage."

of hyper accountability, aggressive teaching to the test and student and teacher instrumentalism, all of which contribute to much of the antipathy that is felt to standardised testing. However, these things are better tackled by improving the quality of the exams and the way in which they are used and prepared for, rather than resisting them as a form of slavery and educational bondage. After all, if you are learning a foreign language, and the test that you take is well-designed, the result of being taught to the test is that you end up being able to speak and communicate in the language, a thoroughly satisfactory outcome for you as a student, and a good example of where an instrumental approach in fact works well.

Too often, however, we hear about how exams squeeze the joy out of education, hamper creativity, atomise knowledge, oppress and terrify the candidate, and promote flashy and shallow learning at the expense of genuine subject mastery. That is reflected in the emotive language of the motion we are debating today, that urges you to believe that "we are becoming slaves to standardised assessment".

However, I suggest that the proposition we should consider instead is that they are a form of essential social protection, inasmuch as they provide an "Exams are a form of essential social protection."

invaluable safeguard of educational standards, an effective way of signposting and marshalling progress through the curriculum, and equitable access to progression opportunities.

I well remember attending an event of this sort a few years ago in the United States where the keynote was given by a distinguished American academic who dwelt in loving detail on what he thought was the educationally damaging impact of standardised testing. Afterwards, in discussion, a delegate from "... a delegate from a former Soviet state explained that in his country they loved standardised testing because it was fairer than nepotism."

a former Soviet state got up and explained that in his country they loved standardised testing because it was fairer than nepotism, which had previously been the main way of making sure you were able to get on in life. The modern version of nepotism, the accumulation and deployment of uneven levels of social capital, is alive and well and in some countries social mobility is now going into reverse. This is a complex phenomenon, but it will not be dealt with by focusing education around the acquisition of a series of generic soft skills and depriving students of the opportunity to show how they stack up against their peers in a gathered field, by following the fanciful advice, in short, of the progressive English educationist A.S.Neill, who wrote of the now abandoned English Eleven Plus exam: "If we "While well intentioned, this approach too often can serve to support a toxic cocktail of low educational expectation. "

have to have an examination at 11, let us make it for humour, sincerity, imagination, character." While well intentioned, this approach too often can serve to support a toxic cocktail of low educational expectation, easy subject choices, and a failure to inculcate that powerful knowledge (to use E.D. Hirsch’s formulation) that is such an important contributor to improving life chances.

"... it is such an important contributor to improving life chances."

I talked earlier about the way in which the debate about exams is a form of culture war between two different educational traditions. A caricature of this would oppose on the one hand the idea of the student as an empty vessel to be filled with a canon of knowledge that can then be precisely measured against, on the other, that of a free spirit whose inner creative spirit is waiting to be liberated by teachers who require only liberation from the tyranny of the standardised test to accomplish their task successfully. As I say, this is a caricature, but the debate is no less real for this.

However, it is based round a false antithesis. Exams do not, again to quote Gramsci, "turn the recipient into a passive and mechanical recipient, a "There is something liberating in being given the opportunity to show others what we can do."

gramophone record". On the contrary, there is something liberating for most of us in being given the opportunity to show others what we can do, in being able to apply what we have learned in controlled but not wholly predictable circumstances, and in doing it competitively and in a time-constrained environment.

Later this summer we will celebrate the achievements of the world’s top athletes during the Olympic Games. The exercise is in one sense artificial and contrived, as it is perfectly possible to "This summer our students too will also have the opportunity to show what they can do when they sit their exams and we should applaud the opportunity and the benefits it brings them."

run fast and run for pleasure, as many of us do without racing, but the opportunity to race gives the athletes a focus for their training and an opportunity in a public forum to show what they can do. They spend many years preparing for the event and over the years the records for speed that they have set have become ever faster, and the techniques for training them ever more refined. This summer our students too will also have the opportunity to show what they can do when they sit their exams and we should applaud the opportunity and the benefits it brings them.

Ladies and gentlemen, I urge you to oppose the motion."

Simon Lebus
Group Chief Executive, Cambridge Assessment