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High-stakes testing fosters a narrow, instrumental education and a surveillance regime in schools, and must be resisted, argues Alex Snowdon

Assessment in schools is a battleground. Teachers, through their trade unions, have repeatedly organised against government efforts to increase high-stakes testing. Parents and school students have objected to increased pressures and perceived injustices, from the introduction of ‘baseline’ testing for four-year-olds to the algorithms fiasco that threw GCSEs and ‘A’ Levels into turmoil.

External assessment has increasingly become a way for government to exercise power over children, teachers and schools. High-stakes standardised testing has grown since the early 1990s and had a significant impact on education. Assessment reforms have been enforced through a machinery of surveillance, which has become an integral component of schooling today. High-stakes testing plays a major role in evaluating and judging schools, as well as affecting the nature of teaching and learning in the classroom.

What is high-stakes testing?

The word ‘testing’ can refer to the routine classroom practices of testing pupils’ knowledge in order to assess what they have learnt, what progress has been made, what gaps in learning exist, and so on. It is widely agreed that this is necessary: all good teachers have ways of identifying what has and hasn’t been learnt, as a means to facilitate further learning.

This can involve setting tests, but it is also something embedded in everyday classroom practices: teachers get to know their pupils, their strengths and weaknesses, in the process of teaching them. They reflect on these classroom experiences and amend their planning for future lessons accordingly. They pay close attention to what is happening within each lesson and adapt their teaching in response.

Such practices are fairly routine and geared towards supporting further learning and progress. Some aspects of what teachers do in the classroom can be summative assessment, for example an end-of-unit test, but in a way that is organically connected to classroom learning and relatively low-stakes: it is for the purpose of tracking progress and identifying strengths and gaps in learning, not for external accountability purposes.  

Testing, however, can also be a quite distinct process of external assessment that is imposed on teachers and learners. In England, there are external tests at the ages of 11, 16 and 18: SATs, GCSEs and A-levels are the dominant forms that this takes. Such testing has come to be termed ‘high-stakes’ testing to reflect the importance of these assessments for those who are taking them – certainly in the case of exams taken at the ages of 16 and 18, there can be profound implications for future educational and job opportunities.

But it also reflects the role of these assessments in the accountability of schools. They are of great importance for the monitoring and measuring of teachers and schools, not just learners. Consequently, they have a huge role in comparing and judging schools and, within schools, in the appraisal of teaching staff, which can have implications for pay and professional progression.

Such assessment therefore carries great weight and authority. It is essential for the credibility of assessments that they are regarded as objective, fair and rigorous. They constitute an authoritative judgement on the achievements and capabilities of learners. Assessment appears to be a neutral, value-free process, but inevitably it is informed and shaped by wider social processes.

Assessments purport to have a very high degree of objectivity and there is often controversy when this is thrown into question. The Covid-19 pandemic generated such public anxieties, due to it being impossible to run standardised examinations for two years running. Their replacement by Teacher Assessment in the summers of 2020 and 2021 was perceived as being fraught with dangers of manipulation and unreliability. The Tory government’s messy attempt, in the summer of 2020, to use algorithms to help deliver ‘reliable’ results proved hugely controversial and prompted protests by students, parents and teachers alike.

The patterns of high-stakes testing reflect the way in which schools are organised in England. Fundamentally, the division between the primary sector (ages 4-11) and the secondary sector (ages 11-18) creates obvious staging posts for assessment. Children are assessed at age 11, towards the end of Year 6 in primary schools, precisely because it provides a mechanism for holding primary schools to account. It enables judgements to be made about the schools, as the outcomes achieved by 11-year-olds are taken to be the responsibility of the schools where children have studied for the previous seven years.

There is no pretence that these tests will influence the future life chances of the children taking them; such a proposition would clearly be ludicrous when applied to 11-year-olds. We are currently seeing a further shift downwards in the age at which children are subjected to external assessments, with the baseline test in the reception year, the phonics screening check in Year 1, SATs for the end of key stage one in Year 2, and multiplication tables tests in Year 4.

There really is no escape: this is a testing regime that shapes much of what happens in primary education. There can be no credible pretence that such testing is for any purpose other than holding schools to account.

‘A’ Levels and other qualifications customarily taken at age 18 are, likewise, a summation of young people’s secondary education over a period of seven years. There is something of an anomaly in the continued existence of high-stakes tests, GCSEs, at age 16, despite the expectation that teenagers will remain in full-time education or training until at least the age of 18. GCSEs reflect an earlier period in which many young people left schooling at 16, but there is growing debate about whether they continue to be necessary. GCSEs, however, have for many years been the most important metric for judging secondary schools.

What is education for?

Testing can appear to be a neutral, objective and fair process. It is important, however, to think through its functions and how it forms part of a wider approach to education. The purpose of assessment is bound up with an even larger question: what is education for?

In a modern capitalist society – i.e. a highly unequal society where ‘free market’ competition dominates – schooling will inevitably serve to reproduce the dominant interests and ideas of free-market capitalism. There are three particular aspects of this that are essential to highlight.

Firstly, the capitalist economy is governed by competition. This is true at the level of competition between capitalist firms competing in the market, and also at the level of nation states competing with each other in the global market. This competition among capitalists also engenders competition among workers. It is necessary for working people to work in order to live – in Marxist terms, to sell their labour power – and this puts workers into competition with each other. Gaining qualifications is very directly linked to seeking work in a competitive labour market.

Secondly, we live in an extremely unequal society. Education reflects that inequality in a range of ways. But it is also designed to reproduce that inequality and to justify or rationalise it. Education has the job of normalising inequality: of making it seem normal, fair and inevitable. If some people have more than others, it is because they are ‘cleverer’ or ‘more able’ than their less economically successful peers.

The concept of meritocracy is a core component of contemporary neoliberal ideology. It must appear to be due to someone’s own abilities if they are successful: the model citizen is the entrepreneurial individual who apparently makes their own success. Conversely, if someone remains nearer the bottom of the social ladder that, too, must be a reflection of their abilities. Success or failure (however such things might be defined) is, according to this world view, a matter of individuals’ own strengths or weaknesses, not dependent on such systemic factors as social class.

Thirdly, modern capitalism requires its workers – and indeed its managers – to have a certain level of competence, skill and knowledge, but to be nonetheless ideologically conformist and unlikely to challenge the status quo. Education ought to produce skilled, literate and capable people for the job market, but people who still accept the dominant ideas in society. Education has an ideological function.

The curriculum has therefore periodically been a battleground for competing ideologies and interests. One example is the public debate about ‘decolonising the curriculum’ that emerged out of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests in 2020. This was focused on such contested issues as the extent to which black history is taught in schools, but also how such history is approached, and the degree to which things like the literature studied in schools reflects our multicultural society. In a similar way, an upsurge in climate-change protests – including the global youth climate strikes – has fuelled discussions about including climate education in the curriculum, accompanied by some debate about what exactly should be taught and how.

In the last three decades, schooling has become much more explicitly framed in terms of employment needs. The language of business has entered education more and more, while preparation for the jobs market has been more explicitly formulated as the purpose of schooling. There has also been a shift towards university being more vocationally oriented. This is partly because the introduction of tuition fees turned a university education into a commodity, with it being widely seen as an investment in a future career, and universities have increasingly absorbed the norms and practices of the private sector.

This has, in turn, influenced what choices teenagers make for their ‘A’ level study. An increase in the numbers enrolling for STEM (Science, Technology, Maths and Engineering) courses has often been explained by reference to them being perceived as more career oriented than many arts and humanities courses. There is also sharper differentiation between universities, with some being much more highly esteemed than others.

Two caveats need to be introduced here though. Firstly, the needs of employers are complex. There have been examples of employers and employer organisations calling for schooling to cultivate things like collaboration, independence, research skills and so on, rather than narrow and prescriptive approaches or ‘teaching to the test’. Different kinds of work have radically different requirements when it comes to necessary preparation, training or learning.

Secondly, there has been a continual tension between a market oriented vision of schooling and the aspirations and values of school staff. The teaching profession has tenaciously held to a richer, broader sense of what education is for, and of what it should consist, than the impoverished vision that has been promoted by some education ministers. Teachers will often find ways around the limitations of their curriculum, or will skilfully combine meeting assessment requirements with doing things in the classroom that move beyond what is deemed essential for exam purposes.

Trade unions – especially the National Education Union and, prior to 2017, the National Union of Teachers – have frequently intervened on the side of greater teacher autonomy, control of the curriculum, and ensuring a broad, balanced curriculum. However, the pressures associated with high-stakes assessment can make it extremely difficult for teachers who strive for an educationally richer vision than that which is prescribed from above.

What is assessment for?

The phrase ‘high-stakes testing’ is used with very good reason: the stakes are often high for schools, teachers and school students alike. We are long accustomed to the idea that qualifications can matter enormously to those who achieve them. The grades achieved in GCSEs and ‘A’ Levels, together with further qualifications at university level, can profoundly affect someone’s chances in the jobs market.

We take it for granted that there are huge economic discrepancies and that only some people are qualified for certain sorts of high-earning jobs, while others are qualified for less well-paid work. There is a widespread perception that some earn far more than others because of merit, with qualifications being an expression of these differential levels of merit. An individual with an upper second or first in their degree is ‘worth’ considerably more than someone with no qualifications beyond some lower-grade GCSEs.

This can also obscure the huge variations in the kind of conditions that shape what young people are likely to achieve in education. One child grows up with financial security and has parents who are university-educated and have lots of books in the home. Another child doesn’t have any of those things.

Schooling tends to reproduce the existing inequalities in class society. The rhetoric of meritocracy can be very appealing and seem egalitarian: everyone is capable of moving beyond where they are coming from. Yet, in reality, most young people’s educational and career outcomes are heavily conditioned by factors beyond the classroom. 

It is interesting to consider how deeply embedded, how ‘common sense’, some of our ideas about assessments and learning are. It is widely assumed, for example, that assessment (in most subjects) must take a written form. The exam is the accepted way of expressing knowledge and understanding. Yet there was a time when orally defending your research and arguments was a frequent method of assessment in the education system; this is still to be found in some societies, and even in the UK it has echoes in the ‘viva’ as one way of judging whether someone will be awarded a doctorate. Similarly, it is often assumed that a tight time constraint – in the form of an exam – is a prerequisite for assessment.

It is not that these methods are wrong or should be rejected. It ought to be acknowledged, though, that there are benefits and drawbacks to any assessment method, that any such method expresses ideas about what kind of knowledge we value, and that alternatives are available.

There have, in fact, been any number of variations and changes in recent history. There used to be a writing test as part of the SATs for 11-year-olds, but it was replaced by moderated teacher assessment of a range of written pieces produced by the children over several months. Coursework was once an established component of many GCSE courses, but has increasingly been replaced by examinations. There used to be a ‘speaking and listening’ component to GCSE English courses, but there isn’t any more. There have been experiments in some courses with interim external examinations, before returning the comforting familiarity of basing everything on summative end-of-course examinations.

How has assessment changed?

England has seen major reforms over a number of decades. The appropriate time frame here is to begin in the early 1990s with the establishment of SATs and Ofsted, following the Education Reform Act in 1988, which had introduced a much more standardised curriculum. The first half of the 1990s saw a series of battles between the government and teaching unions, until eventually (by 1995) there was full implementation of SATs for all the age groups proposed by the government. 

This was prefaced by Thatcher’s government defeating and weakening the teaching unions through a series of major strikes in the mid-1980s. It also went some way to eroding the influence of local education authorities, for example by abolishing the Inner London Education Authority (regarded as a home for left-wing and progressive educational reforms). The government emerged emboldened to push ahead with increased centralisation and the beginnings of a more market-oriented approach to schooling. Numerous developments have taken place since then, including changes of governing party, yet it is remarkable how persistent the framework established in the early 1990s has proved to be.

The first change is the sheer increase in external, high-stakes assessment. The introduction of SATs in the early 1990s extended this kind of assessment to the primary sector. This was actually a rather novel development (with the exception of the ‘11-plus’ tests that determined, during the post-war period, what type of secondary school eleven-year-olds would go to) because previously the only ‘high-stakes’ exams came at a time when many young people were leaving school.

SATs were unambiguously irrelevant to the actual children doing them: no employer has ever asked someone about their SATs results from when they were eleven years old. In recent years there has been further expansion into testing younger age groups. This can only be understood in a framework of government attempts to hold schools to account and enforce their schools policies.

This leads us on to the second change: the development of a more competitive and high-accountability culture in which schools are pitted against each other in league tables, subjected to Ofsted inspections and forced to compete for the attention of parents, who have a degree of choice over where to send their children. Ofsted, the inspectorate for schools that has consistently generated widespread opposition among teachers, was launched in 1992 and has continually been at the core of government efforts to police what happens in schools.

The third development rests upon this increase in competition and accountability. It is the equivalent process inside schools: the ramping up of pressure on teachers and children, with testing widely viewed (by staff and pupils alike) as the dominant purpose and driving force of what happens in schools. The enforcement of targets is a key part of this, with teachers under pressure to reach externally imposed thresholds. A regime of performance-related pay and performance management helps with enforcing this and with disciplining staff. All in all, a surveillance culture has been established that would have been unrecognisable to earlier generations of teachers.

In summary, we can see that the assessment system and greater government control over what happens in classrooms have been enforced by a full-spectrum surveillance system. This has the following four major elements:

– The market imperative of ‘parental choice’ ensures that schools are competing with each other for pupils, rather than having a guarantee of children being allocated to them.

– This is, in turn, reinforced by league tables that publish and compare schools’ results, encouraging a focus by schools on achieving benchmarks of success in external examinations.

– Ofsted inspections strengthen the emphasis on results by using these as a major source of evidence in reaching graded judgements of schools (and Ofsted judgements can influence parents’ decisions about where to send their children).

– Teacher appraisal, together with performance-related pay, ensures that individual teachers are locked into the system of promoting external examination success above all else (with a regime of lesson observations, book scrutinies etc, enforcing this).

These major changes have been politically driven. Successive governments, both Conservative and Labour, have greatly enhanced the centralised role of the Department for Education.

At institutional level, we have also seen the impact of academisation. This was sold as allowing schools more autonomy, but the reality has been very different. Most of the important elements that shape what happens in schools have remained with central government, with the full-spectrum surveillance factors listed above bearing as heavily on academies as on local-authority schools. Most academy schools are now part of Multi Academy Trusts, which often involve decision-making happening at the trust level rather than school level.

What problems does high-stakes testing bring?

One problem with the centrality of testing in schools is the effect it has on pupils’ attitudes to learning and how they perceive the purpose of schooling. Achieving results becomes the sole meaningful goal. All learning is a means to an end, justified by what it leads to, rather than being experienced as a valuable process and experience in its own right. This can have a damaging impact on motivation: a near-exclusive focus on extrinsic rewards is ultimately less motivating than when there is a strong sense of intrinsic motivation.

One difficulty associated with high-stakes testing is that what is tested massively conditions what is taught. The phrase ‘teaching to the test’ is sometimes used to capture the ways in which a preoccupation with external examinations can undermine any efforts to ensure there is a broad, balanced and enriching curriculum. In primary, it can lead to a narrow focus on Maths and English. In secondary, it can mean pupils being pushed into taking GCSE or ‘A’ Level subjects that are perceived as increasing the school’s chances of hitting targets. Teachers have repeatedly voiced concerns about creative subjects like art, music, drama and dance being squeezed out.

The content of the assessment shapes the content of the curriculum. A well-known example of this is the distorting effect that the Year 6 Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar (SPAG) test has on the nature of English in primary schools. It leads to a greater focus on grammar, especially when treated as a decontextualised set of discrete bits of knowledge, than most teachers would otherwise choose. The pressure to achieve results on the SPAG test leads to endless drilling in key terms. It is a huge challenge to make the teaching of SPAG varied, creative and engaging.

The focus becomes decontextualised chunks of knowledge, rather than the creative and thoughtful application of grammar to children’s writing. Indeed this approach strengthens the highly dubious idea that grammar itself is eternal and static, rather than recognising that the English language changes and has variety to it. Grammar is reified as an unarguable set of rules.

There is another distorting effect: some pupils get more attention than others. The focus for schools on achieving particular threshold targets leads to an obsession with a small minority of pupils who are deemed ‘borderline’. This used to be those who were on the borderline between C and D grades at GCSE level, due to huge emphasis being placed on the achievement of at least five A*-C grades. In primaries, it has been those who are on the cusp of achieving the ‘Expected’ level who are the focus of much feverish speculation.

Borderline groups are the focus of intervention programmes and often excessive attention in lessons. Other pupils might be relatively neglected as a result. Nobody particularly wins: those pupils who are targeted for extra attention may suffer a narrower curriculum and experience stress.

This is also a neat example of how the whole culture of school life can become distorted and corrupted. The entire business of ‘school improvement’ can become shaped by the desire to increase achievement, defined in narrow terms, of a small minority of pupils. Similarly, this obsession with results – and with some results in particular – promotes a very instrumental view by teachers of those they teach. Children come to be seen as levels rather than children. They become data rather than complex learners (and even more complex human beings).

In this context, is it any surprise that there are such serious and widespread concerns about the mental health of children and teenagers? It is not merely the stress and anxiety associated with high-stakes tests. It is the wider sense among learners that they are defined by such things as their attainment levels – and that they should internalise this, define their own self-worth and value according to academic success – that is pernicious. What is particularly worrying for many educators, mental-health professionals and others is that the testing regime and the obsession with data are becoming embedded among younger and younger children.

Where next?

The Department for Education has returned to high-stakes external assessments, following the disruption associated with the Covid pandemic. Nothing seems to be changing. Indeed the political determination to embed testing-as-accountability at every level of primary schooling is as strong as ever.

There is, though, plenty of disquiet and opposition in response to the current regime. The National Education Union launched a Replace Ofsted campaign to mark the May 2022 thirtieth anniversary of Ofsted’s foundation. This outlined the case for a fair, supportive and collaborative inspection system. It tapped into the widespread hatred of Ofsted among teachers, many of whom feel that Ofsted fuels excessive workload and encourages a culture of surveillance rather than support in schools. Ofsted disproportionately ‘fails’ schools serving areas with high levels of deprivation, and makes blunt judgements that promote competition between schools, rather than supporting school improvement.

The closely related issue of high-stakes assessments is also contentious, with unions and campaign groups repeatedly objecting to the launch of new initiatives or the restoration of old practices in the post-pandemic climate. Baseline testing has proved especially controversial, largely due to the children being so very young. However, a frequent obstacle for critics of the status quo is the difficulties that many people, including those working in schools, have in imagining any alternative. Ofsted, external assessments and high-pressure accountability have all been in place for so long that it can all feel inevitable.

A number of things are therefore required. One is an understanding of the history and context behind where we are. It is essential to grasp the forces at work and the ends to which certain educational practices are geared, recognising that political choices have been made. It is possible, so this implies, to choose differently. These choices depend on thinking deeply about what we want education to achieve, what our educational values are, and what we believe school should be like.

Secondly, a sense of what alternative approaches might be viable is an essential requirement. In the field of assessment this includes looking at feedback practices that genuinely inform and support learning. It is worth considering, especially at the primary-age range, a wider range of summative assessment methods such as projects (perhaps collaborative), presentations and portfolios of work. There is more to summative assessment than terminal tests. There also needs to be serious thinking about wider alternatives like a different approach to inspection and accountability.

Thirdly, it is important that resistance, led by education unions, takes place to measures that further strengthen the grip of the high-stakes accountability and surveillance culture. The precise battleground changes over time, but parents’ groups, campaigners and trade unions have repeatedly objected to initiatives they have found objectionable, and they will continue to do so.

Such opposition is considerably strengthened by both an understanding of the existing educational order and an ability to articulate alternatives clearly. As things stand, the outlook is rather bleak. We should not forget, though, that many changes (in roughly the same direction) have taken place over three decades or so. It is therefore possible for changes, based on better choices and rooted in strong educational values, to be pursued.

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Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).