Among the challenges facing Britain’s schools is the use of standardized testing as a primary source of accountability for teachers. Since the introduction of grant-maintained and local management schools — accompanied by increased accountability through a national curriculum, national tests, and school inspections — the culture of high stakes testing has permeated UK schools. And while no one is arguing teachers shouldn’t be held accountable, many educational scholars believe that as currently applied standardized tests are doing more harm than good.


Daniel Kortez, professor of education scholar at Harvard University says standardized testing can be very useful. However, the way it’s currently being used is “an expensive and harmful intervention that does little to improve the practices it purports to measure, instead feeding a vicious cycle of pointless test prep.”


Indeed, in a study measuring the impact of accountability measures on students, researchers found the “teaching to the test” more prevalent when the stakes were high. In other words, when test results lead to judgements about the teacher and the school, teachers were more likely to focus their lesson plans on teaching materials on which the students will be tested.


While external accountability has been shown to improve student attainment, test-focused teaching is not a good barometer of student understanding or knowledge in a particular subject. Instead it’s just a good measure of how prepared the pupils were for a specific test. And with increased focus on tests, the overall curriculum is becoming narrower.


In a review of the national curriculum, author and educational advisor Graham Donaldson notes: “At its most extreme, the mission of primary schools can almost be reduced to the teaching of literacy and numeracy and of secondary schools to preparation for qualifications.”


Daniel Kortez asserts that standardized tests can be quite useful if used for improving instruction, rather than a system of accountability. In fact, he argues that it’s time to undo the damage caused by test-based accountability.


He offers six ways to create an accountability system that works:


  • Measure what matters. This includes student achievement, the quality of the educator’s methodology, and the school climate.
  • Don’t just demand better. Teachers need resources and support to achieve set goals.
  • Use tests wisely. The goal should be better instruction, not better test scores. Chasing better scores will ultimately undermine instruction and give a misleading view of student achievement.
  • Set realistic objectives. When faced with objectives they don’t feel they can achieve by legitimate means, some teachers collapse under the pressure, other cut corners and cheat.
  • Control system gaming. Campbell’s Law says pressure to meet performance targets often leads to “gaming the system.” That doesn’t mean teachers shouldn’t be held accountable, but someone needs to monitor how the results are achieved.
  • Test before full implementation. While policymakers mean well, they have often implemented programmes they think will work without testing first. Then it’s hard to measure results because there’s no requirement that states and districts open their data to review.



Hi, I’m Dr Ioan Rees; thank you for reading this article.

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