Is Michael Gove right to praise externally marked exams as the route to “rigour”? The most “rigorous” research shows he’s wrong!

Michael Gove is giving a widely-leaked speech today at the Independent Academies Association in which he will praise tests. According to the Telegraph he will complain that teachers often over-value white pupils’ work, and under value “ethnic minorities”, saying:  “External tests are fairer. With external testing there is no opportunity for such bias – the soft bigotry of low expectations – and tests show ethnic minority students performing better. So external tests are not only a way of levelling the playing field for children of all backgrounds they are a solvent of prejudice.” This is an insidious comment and one worthy of attention. Yes, externally marked exams may get rid of the issue of racial stereotyping — which has only been anecdotally suggested by the Ofqual report in the GCSE marking fiasco — but this doesn’t mean that exams are “reliable” per se. Racial stereotyping is a whole issue unto itself and conflating it with summative assessment is unhelpful to say the least because it begins to hint that many teachers are racist.

Gove really needs to read Assessment for Schools — fit for purpose? a commentary by the Teaching and Learning Research Programme, which looks forensically at the issue of external testing. The whole report is illuminating, but this section reveals that externally marked tests are not reliable measures for assessing achievement overall.  The report says: “Research suggests that we should treat national test results in England, as measures of pupil performance,  with caution. As noted above, Dylan Wiliam estimated in 2000 that at least 30 per cent of pupils could be  misclassified in these tests. In December 2008, Paul Newton suggested a figure closer to 16 per cent. In  March 2009, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority published research based on tests taken in 2006 and  2007. This analysed the number of times markers agreed on the level to award to pupils’ answers in the now discontinued key stage 3 tests in English, maths and science. The extent of agreement varied from 95 per cent  in maths to 56 per cent in English writing, the latter suggesting that markers disagreed on the “correct” level to award in nearly half of these cases.”

The report also reveals that there is real problems with the validity of much external assessment — that is, are they actually testing the right skills and knowledge? Gove believes that children don’t learn enough facts. He says: “Only when facts and concepts are committed securely to the working memory – so that it is no effort to recall them and no effort is required to work things out from first principles – do we really have a secure hold on knowledge.” The problem here, is whose facts and concepts? Michael Gove’s vision of what are important facts may well be different from many other people’s; are the “facts” he believes in more important to learn than other people’s? Here, we come up against the central problem with the way he has gone about implementing much education policy; he hasn’t consulted anyone other people who agree with him — as a recent Guardian article on the advisors involved with his National Curriculum review shows. No real consensus that embraces the full diversity of the nation has been drawn. As a result, many parents, teachers and students feel that Gove is imposing his vision upon us.

And how misguided and ill-judged this agenda is! According to the Telegraph, he will say: “success in exams also gives pupils a sense of achievement and “happiness” that motivates them to work harder and achieve more in the future.” Once again, it’s worth quoting the Teaching and Learning Programme’s research, its report states: “More generally on pupil motivation, the most extensive review of research in recent years (Harlen W., & Deakin Crick R. (2002) A sytematic review of the impact of summative assessment and tests on students’  motivation for learning. In: Research Evidence in Education Library. London: EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London) on the effect of the tests found that those that were seen as “high stakes” de-motivated many children. Only the highest attainers thrived on them, with many showing high levels of anxiety. After the introduction of national testing in England, the research found, self-esteem of young children became tied to achievement, whereas before there was little correlation between the two. This effect was found to increase the gap between low- and high-achieving pupils, with repeated test practice tending to reinforce the poor self-image of the less academic. The review also found that pupils tended to react by viewing learning as a means to an end – the pursuing of high marks – rather than as an end in itself.”

The trouble is that Gove is anything but rigorous. He uses the word all the time, but if he had cared to consult the most “rigorous” research, he’d find out he was wrong.


Published by: @wonderfrancis

Francis Gilbert is a Lecturer in Education at Goldsmiths, University of London, teaching on the PGCE Secondary English programme. He also teaches the Creative Writing module on the MA in Children’s Literature, which is run by Maggie Pitfield and Professor Michael Rosen. Previously, he worked for a quarter of a century in various English state schools teaching English and Media Studies to 11-18 year olds. He has, at times, moonlighted as a journalist, novelist and social commentator. He is the author of ‘Teacher On The Run’, ‘Yob Nation’, ‘Parent Power’, ‘Working The System -- How To Get The Very Best State Education for Your Child’, and a novel about school, ‘The Last Day Of Term’. His first book, ‘I'm A Teacher, Get Me Out Of Here’ was a big hit, becoming a bestseller and being serialised on Radio 4. In his role as an English teacher, he has taught many classic texts over the years and has developed a great many resources to assist readers with understanding, appreciating and responding to them both analytically and creatively. This led him to set up his own small publishing company FGI Publishing ( which has published his study guides as well as a number of books by other authors, including Roger Titcombe’s ‘Learning Matters’ and anthology of creative writing 'The Gold Room'. He is the co-founder, with Melissa Benn and Fiona Millar, of The Local Schools Network,, a blog that celebrates non-selective state schools, and has his own website, He has appeared numerous times on radio and TV, including Newsnight, the Today Programme, Woman’s Hour and the Russell Brand Show. In June 2015, he was awarded a PhD in Creative Writing and Education by Goldsmiths.

Categories Exams, Government policy, Learning, QualificationsTags, , , 2 Comments

2 thoughts on “Is Michael Gove right to praise externally marked exams as the route to “rigour”? The most “rigorous” research shows he’s wrong!”

  1. As I see it, perhaps part of the big problem is the insistence that one solution or stance fits all needs, all learning styles and all value sets. Everything I have seen, read and otherwise experienced tells me that an approach that encourages a degree of professional flexibility tends to produce the best results. Yes, accountability is a key part of public life but samples provide data that are every bit as valid as one obtains from the whole population. Personally I have no big beef with marking panels–they do help ensure that our data are good. That said, we do not need to use them every time.

  2. Yes, I couldn’t agree more Maurice. In Finland, teachers are empowered to “tailor-make” bespoke assessments for pupils; assessments that genuinely reveal their abilities. Exams are a very blunt and imperfect instrument. I think we need to separate off assessing teachers and pupils; we should not be assessing teachers on their pupils’ exam results, but on the progress pupils make; as we have seen, external exams are a very imperfect measure of progress.

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