Test marking fiasco: scrap SATs

Submitted by cathy n on 18 July, 2008 - 1:48 Author: Pat Yarker

In May, 11 and 14 year olds in England’s state schools faced the tedious annual round of public tests in English, Maths and Science. All results of those tests were supposed to be with schools this week. They won’t be.
At the last moment the government acknowledged that such was the incompetence of the private company newly-charged with administration for this year’s testing-programme that a delay in the return of all results to schools was unavoidable. The Education Secretary, Ed Balls, promised an inquiry. ETS Europe, the hapless company who won the £157M testing-contract for the next three years, taking over from Edexcel, England’s privatised exam-board, declared lessons would be learned for next year. They promised that over 90% of results would be in schools by the original deadline. Even if this claim is true, that will leave schools still awaiting the scores of almost a million test papers.
ETS Europe is part of the giant US company ETS, which likes to present itself as “not-for-profit”. It claims this status as a business offering a public good: the mass standardised testing of schoolchildren. The “not-for-profit” badge wins it approval from the gullible and a lighter tax-burden under US law, much to the annoyance of its competitors.
ETS is a latecomer into the big-money world of edu-business, one of whose favourite franchises is tests-u-like. It formed a “for-profit” subsidiary just in time to cash in on the latest boom in Stateside mandatory mass-testing inaugurated by George Bush’s 2001 “No Child Left Behind” legislation. Rapid development of software to facilitate computerised marking has been one of the results. Test-papers may be scanned and made available for marking anywhere in the world, allowing the process to continue non-stop. ETS also markets increasing numbers of what it calls ‘wrap-around products’, such as materials to train teachers not in what’s educationally-useful but in readying students for testing.
A self-declared “billion-dollar commercial entity”, ETS has offices worldwide, for the mass-testing model of education relentlessly seeks to open new markets. It is headquartered on a 360 acre site which the IRS (the USA’s tax inspectors) valued recently at $133 million. The company holds a similar sum in stocks. It employs over two thousand staff, and its executives receive large bonuses on top of high salaries, and in some cases a ‘signing-on’ fee. But the company is ‘not-for-profit’. Some of the profit it hasn’t made this year comes from public money diverted to ETS via schools, in the form of the fees required for students to sit NC tests. We pay, indirectly, a private business to oversee our children as they take and are judged by tests we oppose and which serve no proper educational purpose. The House of Commons Select Committee for Education sat through days of evidence revealing the way NC tests are detrimental to students, teachers and schools. Its recent report urged the government to re-think the whole over-testing strategy begun by the Tories and maintained by New Labour.
That this year’s test-marking would turn out to be a fiasco could have been foreseen by anyone reading the message-boards on the TES website. Hundreds of posts testify to the inefficiency, maladministration and bravura Laurel-and-Hardyesque incompetence over which ETS Europe has presided. There must be grave doubts over the quality of the marks so far awarded, partly because ETS was so confident in its systems that it removed various double-checks and re-marking processes kept in place until this year.
Comments by markers on the inadequacies of ETS Europe once again give the lie to claims that the private sector can be relied on for efficiency, reliability and high-quality service. Markers’ comments on the nature of some of this year’s test-questions reveal yet again the poverty of NC testing and the falsity of its judgements of children.
Yet the deeper issue remains why any teacher continues to act as an NC test-marker. Doing so enables this educationally-damaging testing-system to keep operating, however chaotically. It lends a vestige of credibility to a testing-system rejected by the rest of Britain and the bulk of England’s private schools.
Teachers should re-think what they are doing by their involvement in NC test-marking. Instead of calling for ETS to do better next time, they should at the very least stop undermining by their participation in the marking-process the efforts of other teachers to end NC testing. Best of all, they should join those efforts and help scrap SATs.

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