Wales Eliminates National Exams for Many Students
Move breaks tradition with England, which inspired U.S. policies.
In the United States in recent years, proponents of test-based accountability have largely won out in shaping school policy against critics who maintain that it narrows the curriculum, devalues teachers’ judgment, and turns off students from learning.
Not in Wales. Since gaining a significant measure of autonomy from England several years ago, the Celtic nation of 3 million has charted a course for its schools that greatly de-emphasizes standardized student assessments.
National exams have been abolished for children through age 14. A new secondary school student qualification there stresses the demonstration of applied learning. Early-childhood education is being refocused to concentrate on play.
Led by Welsh Education Minister Jane Davidson, a former high school teacher, the changes mark a major departure from the school improvement thrust in England—a thrust that has helped inspire policy in the United States.
Andy Hargreaves, a Boston College education professor and native of England, said Americans should watch Wales closely. Amid heated debate on testing in the United States, Wales offers a glimpse of an alternative future.
“Wales is arguably the most extreme example of a country that has been, with England, one of the most heavily high-stakes-tested places in the world and that has now decided to pretty much ditch this up through age 14,” he said.
Some experts fear that Wales has gone too far, too quickly. Without standard measures of student progress, the concern is that parents, teachers, and the public will lack critical information about deficiencies that need addressing.
Another concern is that the burden on teachers may increase. In place of externally marked exams, educators are working within clusters of schools across Wales to reach agreements on gauging whether students’ work is up to snuff.
But backers of the new direction in Wales counter that the previous focus on standardized tests didn’t work. Overall performance rose under the regimen, but gaps between the neediest students and the most advantaged ones changed little.
“We inherited a system that was focused on trying to improve the attainment of all pupils,” Ms. Davidson said in an interview. “But there was already evidence that the mechanisms being used were not delivering the outcomes desired.”
Catalyzing the shift in policy was the advent of the National Assembly of Wales, an elected body created in 1999 after a referendum on self-governance. With it, Wales gained power to pass its own laws, though it’s still part of the United Kingdom.
In few areas has that muscle been flexed more than with education. In 2001, Wales began axing key requirements that had previously applied to England, Northern Ireland, and itself. (Scotland already had a more autonomous school system.)
First to go were written exams given to 7-year-olds each spring that were linked to a national curriculum. Later, the Welsh assembly approved the elimination of similar tests for 11- and 14-year-olds.
The actions followed studies suggesting that teaching to the tests was rampant, and student engagement was suffering. Many teachers also claimed that the exams told them little about their students they didn’t already know.
“Each student was just a statistic,” said Ms. Davidson. “And I wanted to get [teachers] back to actually talking about how to acknowledge and recognize the talents of people and how to support those talents as far as they could go.”
Too Few Checks?
As part of its efforts to push educators beyond chalk-and-talk teaching, Wales piloted a new curriculum for youngsters ages 3 to 7 that stresses informal learning, student investigations, and non-classroom activities.
For older students, Wales launched the Welsh Baccalaureate, a secondary school program somewhat akin to the International Baccalaureate that involves out-of-school experiences, in-depth research, and presentations.
In place of the eliminated standardized tests, Wales requires teachers to use their own assessments, crafted with government guidance, and to annually report the results to parents, local education authorities, and the Welsh government.
David Reynolds, an education professor at the University of Plymouth in England, asserts that the Welsh agenda is an affront to the English model, which he said is based on the idea that consumers drive improvement when they can compare results.
“It is an attempt to get education by consensus, to generate education change by being nice to people rather than being nasty, and it’s different in every respect than the English agenda,” said Mr. Reynolds, himself a Welshman.
Naturally, many educators applaud the new policies. Doing away with national tests drew praise from the Welsh arm of the U.K.’s National Union of Teachers, which includes teachers and principals, called “head teachers.”
Brian Lightman, the head teacher at St. Cyres School, a public secondary school outside Cardiff, the largest city in Wales, said Ms. Davidson has been a breath of fresh air. His school helped pilot the Welsh Baccalaureate.
“Our students now are so much more independent and capable of organizing and analyzing what they’re doing, and they’re able to improve as a result of that,” he said. “They are very different in the way they go about their learning.”
The policy shift has posed challenges. Government advisers had suggested replacing the national exams with one standardized skills test at the end of primary school, mostly to inform secondary schools about their incoming students.
Instead, the plan is for the government to offer guidance to teachers in writing their own assessments of those skills.
David Hopkins, a former official at the Department of Education and Skills of the United Kingdom, said lacking objective data at such a crucial point in a student’s career could be dangerous.
“The transition between primary and secondary education is so critical that you need a very good hand on student performance at that age,” said Mr. Hopkins, now a leading expert on education leadership at the University of London.
Welsh leaders contend they have plenty of checks in the system, and will have more. Students there still sit for written exams before the end of secondary school. Like England, Wales regularly inspects its schools through visits.
Under a new requirement, teachers at primary and secondary schools in Wales must work more closely together than in the past to ensure continuity in curriculum and teaching styles for students as they go from one to level to the other.
For an outside check, Wales also fully participated in the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment, which tests students in dozens of countries. Before, Wales was lumped in with England. The new results are expected next year.
Critical to the success of the Welsh experiment will be processes being put into place in which groups of educators examine student work together to come up with common expectations that they can use in crafting their own assessments.
Those so-called “moderation” activities are to be carried out within schools and among them. The plan also is for external evaluators to assess schools’ moderation efforts for testing 14-year-olds, and to accredit those passing muster.
Margery Brown, the head teacher at St. Oswalds Primary School, a Church of Wales school in the country’s southwest, said the new policies are a major adjustment. (In the United Kingdom, religious schools follow the national standards.)
Helping to lead a series of moderation activities among 15 area schools has kept her busy over the past year. But, she said, it’s worth the payoff.
“It’s a lot of work, and it’s over and above everything else,” Ms. Brown said. “But everybody is getting so much out of it that they’re getting a buzz from it. They’re proud to be part of it, because they’re taking ownership about what they’re doing.”
Vol. 26, Issue 16, Page 10Published in Print: December 20, 2006, as Wales Eliminates National Exams for Many Students