‘Drill and Kill’ Tests Under Review

The UK Education Secretary, Michael Grove, has announced a review of end-of-primary school tests in England. According to the Guardian, the inquiry is likely to lead to an overhaul of school league tables and could recommend that the tests be scrapped.

The government has agreed to the review in order to avoid a repeat of the actions this year which saw a quarter of primary schools boycott the tests. A panel of school principals and education experts chaired by a member of the House of Lords will conduct the review.

The review will look at key concerns raised by teachers and principals. They say the current system forces teachers to “drill” students and concentrate on those who are on the border between a good and bad grade to ensure higher rankings in league tables.

These concerns were heightened by the Cambridge Primary Review last year which criticised “teaching to the test” and the narrowing of the curriculum under the pressure to improve league table results.

Even the UK Department of Education now acknowledges it as a major problem in English primary schools. In September it took the unusual step of publishing a guide for schools on how to reduce teaching to the test. It said:

Many schools already take a balanced approach to test preparation and do not ‘teach to the test’. We would like all schools to respond in this way. There is good evidence to suggest that ‘teaching to the test’ can turn children off learning, and can reduce what, and how, they learn about a subject. In short, we feel the approach is counter-productive and one to be discouraged. [Getting the Right Balance, p.4]

The review will examine how to avoid “the risk of perverse incentives”, practising for tests and reduced focus on productive learning.

It will also look into how school league tables are used and interpreted “appropriately” and how to avoid “the risk of crude and narrow judgements”. It will consider how schools can be “properly accountable to pupils, parents and the taxpayer….on the basis of objective and accurate assessments”.

In announcing the review, Michael Gove acknowledged the concerns of teachers and principals and raised the prospect of change:

Raising standards and narrowing gaps are the central goals of the Government’s education policy. It is not our intention that the accountability system should be punitive or unfair to schools working in difficult circumstances but it must be able to identify and tackle cases of sustained underperformance.
Equally, I recognise concerns from heads and teachers about the current system. That is why I have ordered a review – to see whether there is a better way to give parents the information they want and hold schools to account, while overcoming the concerns.

Tests in English and maths, known as Sats, are taken by 11-year-olds in England at the end of their final year in primary school. This year, schools made almost 23,500 appeals against their results with one in 10 resulting in a change to the level achieved.

That a Conservative Education Secretary is finally taking on board long-standing criticisms of publishing school results and league tables stands in stark contrast to the head-in-the-sand approach of the Australian government. Julia Gillard and Peter Garrett simply deny that harm is being done to education by My School.

Hopefully, the inquiry into NAPLAN being conducted by the Senate Education Committee and which is due to report to the Parliament before the end of November will bring about some change.

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