Page last updated at 02:46 GMT, Saturday, 27 March 2010

Reducing exams is a Tory aim

By Mike Baker

Students taking exams
The Conservatives want to reduce the amount of exams students take

Back to the 1950s - that was one characterisation of the reforms emerging from the group commissioned by the Conservatives to shake up exams in England.

The recommendations of the Sykes Review are certainly radical.

They could mean the end of GCSEs as we know them, a return to more traditional A-levels, and the introduction of a university entrance test similar to those in the USA. So the stakes are high.

If David Cameron wins the general election, and decides to implement these plans, school assessment could change dramatically.

Education reform

The starting point of the Sykes Review puts it in line with a growing body of opinion, namely the view that students are over-tested.

There is some irony in a Conservative-backed call for a "reduced emphasis on testing". After all, it was a Tory government that introduced the national tests at ages seven, 11 and 14 in order to ratchet up school accountability.

But, setting aside the tendency for education reform in all political parties to go round in circles, the Sykes Review is surely right to say that the "obsession" with measurement in education means that other aspects of learning, which cannot be measured numerically, are undervalued.

Will their suggested reforms succeed in reducing the burden of testing? They propose cutting the number of exams taken at GCSE level, arguing that many of them serve no real purpose in informing universities or employers, since young people no longer finish their education at 16.

So out would go many GCSEs. Out too would go the current exam league tables that are compiled from the numbers achieving five or more GCSEs at grade C or above.

The Sykes Review would also like to see an end to the AS exams at 17, preferring the more traditional model of a single set of end-of-course A-level exams at age 18. These proposals might indeed help reduce the burden of assessment and so release more time for teaching.

'Tail wagging'

However, the Sykes Review has another proposal that could move in the opposite direction.

This is their proposal for a "standardised University Admissions Test" (UAT) to be taken in addition to A-levels. The English UAT would look similar to the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) taken by university entrants in the USA, measuring performance in language, mathematics and reasoning skills.

But there is a danger that an English version of the SAT would increase, not reduce, the time students spend cramming for tests. If, as I have done, you visit high schools in the USA, you will find that many of them are obsessed with SAT preparation. Parents are even more so.

If the aim of the Sykes Review is to reduce testing, why propose something that could bring an obsessive amount of preparation for tests that are not related to the curriculum 16-18 year olds are studying?

With the SAT score so important in determining entry to many universities, it has become the be-all-and-end-all of secondary education. This is a case of the tail wagging the dog.

What's more, many American parents now spend large sums of cash on additional private tutoring in SAT preparation.

One US estimate claims two million students spend $2.5bn (£1.66bn) on SAT preparation and tutoring each year. The SAT is a high-stakes test that is largely unrelated to the school curriculum.

Its creators deny that it is susceptible to cramming, but that has not stopped the emergence of a lucrative tutoring market that claims to improve scores.

Student bias

So, is it really the answer to our problems in England? An ongoing study by the National Foundation for Educational Research has piloted the SAT in England.

It has concluded that the university entrance test "might prove useful in differentiating between the most able A-level students".

However it found that there was a bias towards students from more affluent homes, even where they had the same prior achievement levels as pupils from poorer backgrounds.

So the question is this: if the aim of the Sykes Review is to reduce testing, why propose something that could bring an obsessive amount of preparation for tests that are not related to the curriculum 16-18 year olds are studying?

It is perhaps ironic that we could be moving towards a SATs-style system when parts of the USA are moving away from it towards the Advanced Placement award.

This is more like A-levels in that it is based around academic subjects taught as part of the school curriculum.

University tests

So has the Sykes Review lost sight of its original aim of reducing the burden of testing? Has it allowed itself to become fixated, alongside parts of the media, on a narrow aspect of A-levels, namely their use in differentiating between the very best candidates?

trainee teachers
The Sykes Review has proposed University Admissions tests

For all the talk about the difficulty of choosing between candidates with three straight As at A-level, the statistics show these students are a tiny minority of university entrants.

Only 4% of 18 year olds achieve three or more grade As at A-level. Moreover, an A* grade is already being introduced at A-level, precisely to provide additional differentiation.

Oxford and Cambridge, and other universities for courses such as medicine, already achieve differentiation by interviewing candidates.

So do we really want to inflict on the great majority of school-leavers the burden of entrance test preparation just for the sake of helping a few universities to differentiate between a small minority of applicants?

An officially endorsed University Admissions Test would run a great risk of becoming something every aspiring university entrant would have to cram for.

Moreover, there is every chance that the newspapers would look to a school's average SATs scores as a way of creating a new form of league table.

SAT preparation could then become something schools could not afford to neglect. Parents would feel obliged to fork out for extra tutoring.

Would that really be the best way to make sure that young people spend their sixth-form years developing the knowledge and skills they will need once they get on to their university courses?

Mike Baker is a freelance education writer and broadcaster.

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