By Marco March
The recent influx of tests, starting with the latest Progress 8 reports and increasing in number by the day due to the ‘exam factory’ revolution, have called into question the motives of those behind the procedures. Is the government trying to modulate the progress of children for the students’ future development? Or is the superfluous level of monitoring for their own peace of mind so that education officials can make informed decisions based on numerical ‘evidence’?
These statistics are, by various ministers’ own admissions, very rarely clear or expository — especially in the field of education, where such phenomena as grade inflation exist, helping to sustain nebulous improvement and a push, according to an education correspondent for the Washington Post, to ‘keep all grades above average’.
The way that politicians use statistics so trivially was made obvious in a recent Brexit debate. MPs Alan Johnson, Diane James, Alex Salmond and Liam Fox all argued over whether the UK should retain its EU membership in front of an audience of young people in Glasgow. Throughout the debate, facts and figures were lanced around the room, but each time UKIP representative Diane James mentioned a percentage, the audience of young voters sighed in dismay, with some even calling out in protest. This was followed by a sharp retort from Labour MP Alan Johnson who made the point that ‘most of the time, statisticians get it wrong’.
The criticism from both the audience and the bench, far from being a descent into a UKIP witch hunt, was poignant in the sense that James had no further evidence to back up figures that seemed to imply that the UK was better off controlling her borders because there weren’t, according to a particular statistic, enough jobs for doctors. She failed to mention, however, that from 2001-2011, the population of residents in the UK who were born outside of the nation rose from 9% to 13%, and with it, the national economy grew due to the billions of pounds in revenue that migrants brought to the UK economy.
Statisticians have weighed up all of the available figures and they still cannot come up with an easy answer for the complicated Brexit debate — so why should James’ figures be the only ones that hold weight when she cannot explain the ancillary factors that determine the value of the figure? James’ failure to follow up her initial ‘evidence’ caused her to lose the debate as most in the audience were unimpressed by her percentages alone. One member of the ‘undecided’ faction of the audience went as far as to call the battle of numbers ‘tit-for-tat’.
The tactic of using statistics to give reason to opinion is a poisonous one, because numbers are so often seen as gospel when really they are at best just an indication of popular belief and trend. If statistics were so pertinent, they would be hailed as indisputable evidence to be followed without cause for argument.
Yet there are so many other determining factors to be considered that no one factor can singled out as more important than any other. If, for example, we take a statistic from the ONS that shows that the proportion of GCSE passes has continually and steadily increased over a span of 23 years, one may assume that the population is becoming more intelligent due to the increasing number of students passing their exams. This would, however, be ignoring other more salient factors such as grade inflation, the change in the difficulty of tests, and the evolution of content. Indeed, since the 1960’s, grades have been steadily increasing — and a recent study has shown that on average, 55% of parents struggle to answer simple GCSE maths questions, amid the stereotypical claims from the older generation suggesting that the O-Levels were more difficult than GCSE’s.
The early educational model of Enlightenment originally proposed by Emerson does not in any way refer to exams or testing procedures as conducive to learning. It states that the student should strive to ‘know thyself,’ which includes knowing information relevant to one’s individual self, as opposed to the social self which the current educational system is tailored towards. This medium of learning is brought into question in Emerson’s, Chomsky’s and Freire’s work.
Some of the most renowned intellectuals of modern times got to where they are through ignoring, failing and dropping out of education. Bill Gates dropped out of university; Mark Zuckerberg did, too; Chomsky never went to his lectures; Einstein failed in most of his exams. The list goes on.
It would seem, then, that autodidacts (those who learn by themselves outside of education) come out on top in the long run. But these are all extraordinary cases. Today we are privy to the wealth of information on the internet that gives us access to ideas previously sequestered in the hegemonic educational system of old. In that sense, now that a network of information is connecting us, we all share the same point of view. How can we expect to yield unique, interesting incongruences if we all use the same approach?
There needs to be inspiration, which is not something that children are getting today, as a letter from children at Andoversford Primary School to Nicky Morgan, the Minister of Education, suggests. In it, children mention that the SAT reading exam content is ‘dull’, ‘old-fashioned’, and ‘uninspiring,’ and they mention that the vast majority of sentences begin with ‘the’. If tests such as this are limiting children’s development by putting them off subjects through sheer boredom — and there are so many new testing procedures being implemented all the time — how is another test going to help that?
The inspiration that drives a teenager to choose to look up how robots work as opposed to using them as toys is the single most important trait to foster in the classroom. But it can’t be achieved if teachers are constantly teaching exam techniques for their own data-dependent survival as well as their students’.