Is the Use of Standardised Testing Improving Education?

by Sienna Bentley

A large number of schools across the UK use standardised testing to “augment their internal assessment regime”. It can be seen that there are both pros and cons to using standardised testing, used typically to test knowledge of a particular criteria or to challenge underlying skills such as comprehension and reasoning.

In the US, the use of standardised testing escalated significantly after the No Child Left Behind Act 2002 which meant that annual testing was mandatory in all 50 states. Advocates of standardised tests claim they are fair and that most approve of their use, but it can be argued that neither of these claims are true. American students fell from 18th in the world for mathematics in 2000 to 27th in 2012, raising the question that standardised testing may not be as effective as it is made out to be.

While standardised tests are inclusive and essentially non-discriminatory because the content is the same for all students, they only measure a minute portion of what makes education worthwhile. Yes, everyone across the country is learning the same thing so the tests are fair in order to measure individual ability, but in schools this testing has almost removed the passion and determination to learn, replacing it with students learning how to pass a test. While it may be argued that this “teaching to the test” is a positive method because it focuses on essential content and skills and eliminates time-wasting, teaching appears to no longer be about passion for the subject but how to answer particular questions in a way that will achieve the maximum marks on a paper, in order to boost the school’s averages and “augment their internal assessment regime”. In this way, it can be argued that these methods drill the passion out of students, and in turn increase pressure because in reality, a student’s entire future is weighted on the results of these tests. Individual ability is assessed through these exams but it is not entirely fair to suggest that each and every student will be on top form during an exam when they know just how much pressure is on them, potential illnesses or conditions that the exam boards may not be aware of and the nerves that may be present before walking into an intimidating hall full of isolated desks and question papers.

To add to this, I would argue that one’s ability should not be defined by an exam. As aptly stated by Einstein, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Each individual has different personal strengths and weaknesses, different talents and abilities. It can be argued that it is unfair, as previously mentioned the tests are non-discriminatory due to the same content, to challenge both the musician and the mathematician by giving them a difficult maths exam, and vice versa.

Finland is admired worldwide for its unconventional teaching strategies and lack of banding systems. All pupils, regardless of ability are taught in the same classes and due to this, the gap between the weakest and strongest students is the smallest in the world. They only have one standardised test at the age of 16 which could perhaps be the reason it has consistently been placed at the top for the international rankings for education systems. It has been admired for its students’ scores on the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment test, its 15 year olds besting students from 56 other countries by topping the science tests.

So does the UK’s education system need reform? Will we look north for answers?