Lessons from Britain in what not to do with standardized testing

Insisting all students reach high standards: good. Testing them to ensure this: necessary. Publishing comparisons of schools' test scores? It has been proposed in the US, and is happening in Britain, where they're called 'league tables.'

Christopher Furlong / Pool / Reuters
Britain's Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg (left) and Prime Minister David Cameron (right) chat with pupils at Wellbeck Primary School in Nottingham, Oct. 21. British public schools have their standardized test scores published to help parents with school choice. America is moving that way, so it's worth looking at the effects of these published 'league tables.'

The education system in this country is creating a generation of children who are unable to think for themselves. Since the introduction of league tables in 1992, there has been a shift in priorities in schools away from traditional teaching methods towards teaching exam tactics to help schools to advance up the league table rankings.

League tables were created to try to give parents the information that would allow the forming of a free market within education and school choice. However, this objective was never achieved. Instead, the tables have given the government greater scope to intervene in schooling by the introduction of various target and policies. As a result, not only has the quality of education decreased, but the league tables themselves have ceased to represent the actual relative quality of schools.

A flexible, free-flowing education system would reflect their needs and interests of individual students. League tables have cemented a reverse system where all classes are aimed at meeting a centralized target, blind to the needs of students. This target culture has manifestly failed to improve standards.

It is time for a revolution in the way we approach schools and measure their relative success. The national curriculum encourages the standardization of teaching that allowed the league tables to be introduced. It is time for both to be re-examined. Today, the aspiration of children and parents are very different to what they were in the 80s or even the early 90s. With more pupils than ever aiming to attend university, surely a better measure of a schools success will be the number of children they can get accepted into institutions (assuming that the universities themselves are given the freedom to choose students as they see fit rather than by government fiat).

Yes, there are problems associated with this measure; as some universities have lower entry requirements than others, but it would still provide a better indication of the quality of schooling provided than the current system. With university places becoming more and more competitive, if a school was judged on school leavers going on to these institutions then it is a positive indication of the quality of that school.

With universities becoming more disillusioned with the quality of education of incoming students, it is becoming increasingly important that children are educated beyond the curriculum and taught the skills required to thrive in further education and society in general. Freeing schools from the league table system would be a small but important step in that direction.

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