In early May, following an online petition to remove tests for six and seven year-olds which attracted over 45,000 signatures, thousands of parents took their children out of school to demonstrate their unhappiness at SATS testing. Parents were protesting against standardised tests for Year 2 and 6 pupils, saying they are too tough and have age ‘inappropriate’ questions in maths and English. They also felt that children were being pushed towards rote-based learning.
We seem to have developed a culture of ‘omni-testing’, apparently founded on the conviction that if students can improve their standardized test scores, they will increase their chances of gaining acceptance to the college of their choice, and at the end of it all find a good job. The rise of testing is thus meant to be a good thing.
Whether it is or not depends on what we are testing for and that, in turn, will depend on what we think education is for.
I do think certain testing is a good idea. Generally speaking, it’s a pretty good thing to be able to spell and add up and know when the Second World War started and where Ghana is on a world map, and so forth. Reading, writing, arithmetic, history, language, geography – all lend themselves to some form of examination at some point in children’s educational lives
But the default culture of testing seems to me to go beyond this, not to mention being about more how a school is performing than how a pupil is.
In its broadest sense, education should be about guiding people to what they can become. It is about the formation of wisdom, the development of character within which knowledge is a part (but only a part). We should not, of course, rely solely on schools for this objective (the responsibility lies just as heavily, if not more so, on family, community and church), but they should contribute to wisdom.
And, with the best will in the world, our culture of testing is in danger not only of not contributing to that wisdom, but of actually undermining it. To paraphrase, T.S. Eliot’s poem-play The Rock, contemporary education risks losing life in our preparation for earning a living, losing wisdom in knowledge, losing knowledge in information.
Developing wisdom cannot be ascertained by endless exams asking for ‘answers’ – this is to simplify what knowledge is, and paradoxically dumbs down the overall power of education and a school’s role in it. We need to pull the reins in on excessively rigid testing and re-anchor education in what it is capable of achieving and what it aspires to make us.