“Don’t teach to the test,” said the mentor at the start of the teacher training course.
Of course not, teaching is meant to provide a rounded education, it is meant to provide students with the knowledge and skills to fulfil their own potential and to become full and active members of society. There are lofty aspirations in school mottoes about the achievements and future lives of those who attend the schools.
Unfortunately, the government does not judge students or schools on the basis of roundedness, and certainly pays little regard to the “soft” skills students have achieved or to the aspirations or mottoes of the establishments they have attended. Whatever the protestations of Ofsted about the priorities of schools, students and schools are judged on the basis of their GCSE results.
A single examination is now expected to encompass all students: the GCSE 9-1. To teach a lively, happy group of students who have low academic ability in the knowledge that they will have to sit examinations in which they will be judged to be failures can be very discouraging. The overwhelming majority will get a grade, but only grades of 4 or above are considered to be pass grades (to achieve what is called a “strong pass” demands a grade 5).
A motivation grows to do the best you can for students, to try to ensure that they achieve as high a grade as possible. The course specification is printed off and examined closely. What knowledge is asked of those who will sit the examinations? What keywords need they learn? How will the examination questions be structured? A long way out from the exams, we begin doing test questions.
It’s not only the students who are judged – the school is judged on the basis of those GCSE grades. The Progress 8 score, the key figure on which a school is judged a success or failure, is calculated on the basis of comparing the results of their GCSE examinations with their expected grades that were calculated by using the SATS scores those students achieved in English and mathematics tests in their final year at primary school. If students hit their target, the Progress 8 score is zero; if they exceed it, it is positive; if they fall short, it is negative.
The state education system has become a matter of measurement, and what is being measured is often of little benefit either to the students, or to the society in which they will live their lives.