"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

British Testocracy Fails the Test That Matters

New research from Lancaster University and reported in The Guardian shows that Blair testocracy in Britain has, for the most part, been a hugely-expensive bust that has disabled learners, rather than making them better thinkers. Maybe there is something here in these findings for our own clueless Congress as they consider ways to get free of the NCLB millstone:
. . . . The review is also highly critical of the narrow basis on which children's ability is measured. It points out that the pressure on schools and children to deliver the right answers to tests means teachers don't develop children's abilities to think and talk. Teachers ask closed questions and children are expected to give short, prescribed answers. What the report calls "higher-order learning", ie the ability to connect different ideas and draw conclusions from evidence, is neither encouraged nor measured. Here the report echoes a child I heard on the radio last week, who said: "I know the right thing to do to pass the tests, but I don't know what I'm doing."

But perhaps the most important parts of the report are to be found in its recommendations for the future. It points out, drily, that "massive efforts to bring about change have had a relatively small impact". Education policies have cost hundreds of millions, but they have generally had neither a sound basis in research nor a systematic evaluation thereafter. As the review says, what is clear is our ignorance. It wants to see policies tied much more closely to evidence, and trials of any new initiatives before they become national practice.

In its response the DCSF appears to be imprisoned by its political inability to admit that the thrust of this policy could have been a mistake. Indeed, ministers are planning to press ahead with new tests for primary school children which can be taken at any point during the school year - something critics believe will only add to pupils' stress, while adding nothing to their learning.

Perhaps the only hope lies in the possibility that the new secretary of state will have the courage to look at the evidence anew. Meanwhile, it is ironic to reflect that, 10 years after coming into office and promising to govern on the basis of "what works", the government should still have so little idea of what really does.

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. --A. Einstein

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