Teaching to the test

If you’ve ever wondered why more and more pupils are passing exams, yet the British public remains as boneheaded as ever, you need look no further than this report.

Too many schools are “teaching to the test” in mathematics, stifling genuinely stimulating thinking about the subject, a report suggests.

The report is wrong. In actual fact, every school “teaches to the test” in every subject. There is no genuinely stimulating thinking about any subject going on in schools. That is the inevitable consequence of having exams.

I am going to use the example of one subject here, but you could talk about all of them. Looking back at school, none of us learned any physics. We were all taught how to pass a physics exam. And when you’re being just about constantly tested from the start of school to the end that can take up a lot of time. It took up so much time that there wasn’t any time to actually learn physics. All our effort was geared towards passing the exam at the expense of actually learning something.

I’m not complaining. As I said, it’s inevitable when all that matters is not what you learn but the grade that’s printed on a piece of paper. As a result, pupils only want to pass the exams and teachers only want the pupils to pass the exams. It is not at all unusual for a pupil (or a student at university) to ask, “Do we need to know this for the exam?” And it’s not unusual for a teacher to say, “You don’t need to know why this is the case. You just need to remember it for the exam.” You can’t blame pupils or teachers for that.

It might not be such a problem if there was only the summer exam to worry about, but some wise guy invented the Unit Assessment, which are spread out across the entire year. And then there are prelims. The whole school year is geared up towards these peaks of activity and there is no time to worry about anything else.

It’s not just about drumming home the parts of a subject that are in the curriculum. There is the dark art of question spotting. At my school the Modern Studies department seemed particularly fond of this, but they all did it. Teachers study past papers and try to find patterns. They’ll work out which questions are most likely to be asked. If a question wasn’t asked last year but has been asked on a few previous occasions, the question is likely to come up again. Questions that were asked last year are unlikely to come up this year unless they are asked every year. And so on. This is the stuff we were taught at school!

And then there are appeals. Never mind if you mess up the final exam — we have enough prelims and coursework to appeal for an increased grade! My old school is number one in the country for appeals. It made 800 appeals for Standard Grades and Highers in two years. I had my Computing Higher grade raised from a C to an A, even though I underperformed in Computing all year and I can’t remember ever getting an A in any Computing exam.

But until some really clever person can devise a way of proving that people have learned a lot about a subject without having to examine them, this sort of business is inevitable.


  1. on the Socialist Republic of North Britain. The English really need to withdraw from the area if it is to have any hope of recovering. Make My Vote Count on learning the lesson of the rise of the BNP. Both amusing and important.DoctorVee takes issue with the report on teaching to the test in maths. It happens in all subjects he suggests. Shuggy is also on to this. It’s the system, stupid. The Da Vinci Code movie as it actually is. In fact, the entire script.

  2. …and then you get a job in an industry completely unrelated to your studies and realise that your 10 A-grades mean nothing if you haven’t got the skills to resolve conflict in the workplace, juggle a hundred tasks at once or chair a meeting (of which the majority of the subject matter goes over your head)…

    Education is a great thing and it’s always handy to know how to switch on a computer or orders a coffee in German, but I don’t think I’ve so much as *tried* to solve a differential equation since I left school. Yet I’ve certainly done the things I’ve mentioned above (not the 10 A-grades, though!)

  3. I could have listened a little closer in that English grammar class, though.