Because it is so completely ridiculous, it is easy to make light of the government’s latest guidance and direction on the Key Stage 1 and 2 English grammar, punctuation and spelling test framework for 2016, this latest supplied for test developers. I know how easy because I did so at 12.20am this morning here, as a first strike.
This second attack requires more seriousness, because the purpose and effect of such guidance and direction is serious, and dangerously so. Rather than continue to unpick the nonsense of, for example, the ludicrous instruction on how to assess students’ use of the exclamation mark, I want to comment on both the arrogance and small-mindedness of those who craft such documents, and the politicians who with similar defects are prepared to support and implement it.
Those of us who teach, and specifically teach English, understand only too well the purpose and effect of the test context [which should also be described as a culture]. The perceived need for national testing which can be ‘used’ to apparently standardise performance across schools and students requires those tests to be finite in what they examine: questions with ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers. Such a reduction in the testing parameters make them markable. It really is as simple and simplistic as that.
It then follows that guidance and direction to test developers, and subsequently to markers/examiners, has to be confined and constricted to produce the narrowest student responses so these can be so easily assessed – well, marked, because there is no assessment really of the responses in such a closed context.
As English teachers, as well as common-sense people, we understand that the use of written English cannot be narrowed to such meaningless parameters of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. That is the first, definitive argument against these tests. The second is more fundamental: devising tests which in essence are constructed to make ‘national standardising’ a mathematical possibility, has nothing whatsoever to do with the teaching and assessment of students’ learning as writers.
The detrimental impact all of this has on both markers and teachers is a given. Firstly, as someone who has unsuccessfully challenged the inaccurate marking of student responses in English Key Stage 3 tests, I know from this angry experience that markers [and I have never understood/accepted this: peopled to a significant degree by experienced English teachers] are themselves constrained by the definitive nature of mark schemes. Therefore, responses that are rich in the infinite, interpretative and meaningful possibilities of English writing are deemed erroneous and cannot be rewarded.
Secondly, the unforgiveable but understandable consequence of this is that teachers who would be measured as failures by the possibility of such error-driven results – and the school itself then measured by this – will ‘teach to the test’ to avoid such negative scenarios. Therefore, teachers at Key Stage 2 might well be inclined to teach students that they must always demonstrate the ‘accurate’ use of an exclamation mark by beginning their exemplary sentence with What or How. How outrageous.
That last, by the way, doesn’t require an exclamation mark.
I actually think the argument against is already made: the [dys]functional pragmatics of such national testing in English as I have outlined make it untenable. However, the ‘deeper thinking’ behind the content itself needs challenging. I have already done this on sample tests, albeit more satirically here and here, but it deserves more scrutiny now.
The person [it is frighteningly likely, by and large, to be a singular pedant] or ‘think-tank’ [excuse the paradox] that devised the Content domain and Cognitive domain of these tests did so from an ivory tower of the most preposterous design and construction. The exclamation mark debacle that broke as news yesterday is an important exemplification of this, but looking at the further detail of what test developers are meant to consider and implement illuminates the grammatical hubris of the platform upon which the tests will be based.
But I won’t analyse this. Have a look yourself at the two snapshots below, and look at the whole document in detail. It is digesting this whole that makes the hypothesis of its application at Key Stages 1 and 2 a lofty irrelevance, a document attempting to display self-knowledge above educational usefulness. I genuinely believe this is the case: it is an obfuscation to fool government advisers and ministers into implementing because it seems to be all-knowing; it is the emperor’s new clothes.
The simple, alternative solution, as always, is to leave the teaching and assessment to teachers. A professional teaching at Key Stage 2 will know whether their students have used exclamation marks that work – inside or outside the box. They can best decide if a student’s writing conveys meaning effectively in the context it has been set, and within that student’s grasp. There is a history of workable practice – sadly long gone – where teachers can themselves be standardised through purposeful and professionally meaningful consortia training.
Finally, the one glaring irony in the guidance to test developers, and by extrapolation those who mark their eventual tests, is contained in this classification from within the pompously named ‘three-point taxonomy’:
compiles component ideas or proposes alternative solutions
In addition to my use of the term above, it is the notion of ‘alternative solutions’ that makes a nonsense of the guidance given in the whole document because it does not acknowledge or accept its existence. Markers will not be allowed/able to reward such. Only teachers using formative assessment – and teacher nous – will be able to recognise and reward such rich ‘errors’!
That did deserve its exclamation mark.