British schools: kids, commas, and tests

We interrupt our scheduled mid-week quiet time to report on a bit of educational nit-picking. But first, a bit of preamble:

In the interests of improving British education, students here get tested. A lot.* The idea is to make sure all schools meet some minimal standards, then to make the minimal standards higher than minimal, and after that to correct the problems that grew out of or were revealed by any earlier testing, which you do by adding more tests. At the end of which the kids–as Garrison Keillor put it–will all be above average.

Garrison Keillor’s a Minnesota reference that Americans from the other 49 states may or may not recognize and that non-Americans probably won’t. Don’t worry about it. He’s a funny guy but he’s a side issue.

If the answer to all educational problems is to test, it seems fair to ask what they’re testing for.

Why, things they can mark, of course. And more than that, things they can mark easily.

Irrelevant photo: Valerian. This will not be on the test.

It’s not impossible to mark stuff like deep thought, good writing, and comprehension, but it’s harder than marking yes/no, right/wrong, up/down, which means it costs more, and anyway it involves an element of subjectivity and, um, thought. All that really good stuff is hard to quantify. So if you’re setting up a foolproof system, what you do instead is set standards that make the process–not to mention the product– so prefabricated that you’re no longer worrying about fluff like thought and good writing, you’re checking whether the kids have done what they were asked–sorry, make that told–to do.

And there we have standardized testing. In the lower grades, the schools look good if their kids do well and look bad if they don’t. In the upper grades, ditto, but now the kids’ chances in life depend on doing well. So the schools teach to the tests and everything narrows down.

Isn’t childhood fun? Don’t you just wish you were a kid again?

When the national average on the tests does down, everyone panics. Our kids aren’t learning. Our schools aren’t teaching. Our country’s falling apart. And when they do do well? A smaller number of people panic, but they do it so well that surely the numbers don’t count. The tests have been dumbed down. Too many kids passed. We’re not asking enough of them.

So, that’s the preamble.

In the most recent primary school tests, kids lost points because their commas weren’t perfectly curved and their semicolons had floated too far away from the words they followed.

The directions for people marking the tests are so specific that if I were grading papers I’d need a see-through ruler. And Prozac. One section says, “The comma element of the semicolon inserted should be correct in relation to the point of origin, height, depth and orientation. . .  Where the separation of the semicolon is excessive, neither element of the semicolon should start higher than the the letter ‘I’. The dot of the semicolon must not be lower than the letter ‘w’ in the word ‘tomorrow.’ ”

Which is very different from the “w” in the word “water.”

In spite losing points for straight commas and oversized semicolons, 61% of the kids met their targets in reading, writing, grammar, and math, compared with 53% last year.

Which proves the tests have been dumbed down and the country’s falling apart.


  • A cross-party committee of MPs warned that the some of the tests were endangering both kids’ learning and their well-being. So far, that doesn’t seem to be slowing anyone down.

72 thoughts on “British schools: kids, commas, and tests

    • Ah–I should’ve been clearer. They were given a sentence and told to insert a semicolon. If you were lucky, you could drop it in the right place without really knowing what the damned thing does. The trick would be to look for someplace where you could feel the sentence bump over the potholes a bit and put it there.

      I don’t remember being taught what they were either.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Oh, dear … it’s alarming when teaching kids the proper dimensions of a semi-colon appears more important than teaching them how to think. I’m reminded of the adage that “Not everything that matters can be measured, and not everything that can be measured matters.”

    Liked by 4 people

    • Now that’s an adage worthy of a wider audience. I’ve heard people say about I.Q. tests that no one really knows what they measure (it’s not intelligence) but whatever it is, they’re fairly good at it.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. This makes me very sad. I hate our education system!
    these sorts of things are a big part of why I left teaching, and a small part of what makes me think I should have stayed in the system to fight it from within…
    Only a small part mind you because such a small part of me wishes it had stayed in teaching that there is no possibility of big parts!
    I am fairly sure that at primary school I didn’t know what a semicolon was let alone how big it should be…and now I officially write things for a living!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh for the love of…speaking as someone who struggles mightily with knowing when a semicolon or a comma is appropriate, to add shape and position to the equation is…what’s more pedantic than pedantic?

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Pingback: A World Made of Sentences | From guestwriters

  5. Hi Ellen,
    and why does all this testing lead toa dumbing down [from educational standards that have already been ver poor to begin with]?
    In my opinion because now the syudents are just taught how to pass the tests, and not overall knowledge and understanding.
    Best regards,

    Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly. If what we want our kids to learn is how to pass a test, we’re managing that–mostly. If we want to actually educate them, we’re failing. Just after this was posted, I read that suicide rates among young people spike at exam time.


  6. Thanks, Ellen, for this post.
    And why does all this testing lead to a dumbing down [from educational standards that have already been ver poor to begin with]?
    In my opinion because now the students are just taught how to pass the tests, and not overall knowledge and understanding.
    Best regards,

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Sad, isn’t it – that our kids are being indoctrinated into a world where the visual matters more than the abstract thought behind the visualization?

    I know I’ve groused for years that our educational system should focus more on getting kids to want to LEARN…rather than how to pass a test…but that’s not the powers that be want.

    A thinking population? Outrageous! If the common herd could form abstract thoughts, they might figure out all the crap we’re tossing at them is just that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • They might. And then there’s all the money to be made by selling standardized tests.

      I’m not convinced that the visual matters that much. I suspect that (if art’s still taught) the standardizers have found something largely irrelevant but standardizable to measure there–and it won’t be visual.


  8. We are experiencing similar excessive testing in the states. One of my favorite sayings in opposition to over testing is, “you don’t fatten a hog by weighing it.” We’ve stopped teaching and gone directly to testing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • A friend of my mother’s had a kid in a progressive school that didn’t worry about spelling in the early years. The kid was famous in our family for sending a thank-you note that my mother posted on the kitchen wall. It went something like: “Der Jane, thank you for the litel pipple.”

      She’s probably working as an editor now. Or something along those lines.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I am well familiar with Garrison Keillor as is evidenced by the fact I can spell his name correctly without scrolling back up. I did not live in Minnesota, but I did live in the Midwest. I’m old too, which may be a factor. I highly recommend his album: “Songs of the Cat”. It is very amusing! That said, on the semicolon. After some thought on how the tests were graded, it suddenly occurred to me that the tests may have been on the subject of Art and not English grammar. That would explain why shape and form were so important. No mention was made of colour.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The discussion of color would probably have been with the people marking the test–what color pens they had to use for which category of mistake.

      Britain’s very big on telling people they have to fill in forms in BLOCK CAPITALS, using black ink. I usually manage a line or two in caps before I forget. So far, I’ve never had a form bounced back to me, but for all I know every official form I’ve filed is liable to be delegitimized without warning for my use of lower-case letters.

      I’ll check out the Keillor album. Thanks for mentioning it.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I used to be a High School English Teacher. One of the reasons I burned out and took a break (which is now 14 years long) was that I felt unreasonable pressure to teach to the exams and maintain that narrow focus. There was inadequate time or scope to explore all those little tangents and interesting details that actually make education engaging, fun, and memorable. My students would tell me that they had remembered something critical in the exam because it related to something creative or random I had done in a lesson and yet it was precisely those elements of my lesson planning that were getting squeezed out. I remember a member of the senior management team walking in on a kinetic lesson I was conducting, relating to the themes of The Crucible, and demanding to know how it was relevant to the students’ studies. I think those in power have pretty much lost sight of what the function of education is. You don’t create lifelong learners with an enthusiasm for knowledge, equipped with necessary life skills, prepared for the adult world, by spoon-feeding them rote facts and stock responses to what might appear on an exam page.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This battle is old enough that Dickens had a character rant about children needing facts. Was it Mr. Gradgrind? Dickens did have a (slightly over-the-top) gift for naming characters.

      Part of the tragedy is that creative teachers get squeezed out of the profession. What a loss.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Thank GOD and thank Ellen for some humour – or humor depending upon which side of the spellchecker you find yourself – for I’d be throwing things, too.


    I surely do love the computer and all of the wonderful things it allows me access to (there – ended in a preposition. Mark that, you cagey computer, you!) But this semicolon thing? INSANE!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Especially since the semicolon could be wiped out of the language and English would stagger on with barely a second glance. (Although I’d miss it for complicated lists, but even then, I’d live.)

      And now that you mention computers, it reminds me that most of these kids will be doing 97.6% of whatever writing they do on computers, which will curve their commas and size their semicolons perfectly.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I like semicolons when used in the appropriate contexts. Useful for those situations where you have two related clauses that are not close enough to be joined with a comma, but look too disjointed if each is written as a separate sentence. People who’ve never been taught this useful trick often still put the two clauses in one sentence, separating them with the dreaded comma split, which always looks odd to me:
        “I saw Harry today, he looked well.” (comma split)
        as opposed to “I saw Harry today. He looked well.”
        which I might well right as: “I saw Harry today; he looked well.”

        Liked by 1 person

  12. It is very scary and sad. Here in the US we have similar ridiculous testing standards. I believe it is all part of a vast conspiracy that can be explained in four words: FOLLOW THE MONEY TRAIL.

    In the US, as testing got more and more stringent, so did the types of text books that kids were permitted to use so that teachers could ‘teach to the test’. Ditto with testing materials, methodologies and teacher training. Certain states — like Texas for example — have a monopoly on these materials. And they ain’t cheap! Suffice it to say that many CEOs and government officials are getting rich over the stringent, silly standards. (Funny how it is all doctored up to sound very scholarly and official –“comma element and relation to point of origin” — as if it actually makes sense. The inmates are clearly running the asylum. Beware Orwellian Newspeak.) In the meantime the kids are deprived. It is a truly disgusting situation.

    Sorry for the long rant. It is a topic close to my heart! On a positive note, love the Valerian!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s a gorgeous flower and was used in Victorian times (and possibly before) as a sleeping potion–only I think that was white valerian, not red.

      You’re right about following the money. And about Texas–it’s such a huge market that it dominates everything. Over here, a kid I know–a very bright guy who’s, in fact, no longer a kid–was talking to us about his English exams and it turns out they were only reading a few chapters of a Dickens novel (I think it was Great Expecations) in preparation for the test. That was all they needed, that was all they had time for, and that was all they got. If he hates Dickens for the rest of his life, I wouldn’t be surprised.

      (Long rants–especially well-informed, interesting, or funny ones–are most welcome.)

      Liked by 1 person

    • How did–. Wait. I was about to ask how anyone convinced so many educational/political systems that this was a good idea, then I remembered that testing’s an industry by now, and from the sound of it a big one. Which pretty much answers my question. In the absence of educational evidence for this, apply money–lots of it. It works.

      Not to sound cynical or anything.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I don’t think I knew what a comma was at primary school, let alone a semi-colon. This kind of testing does bear fruit. I recently read a book by a young novelist who had scattered semi-colons throughout it, none of them where they would have done any good.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Oh, my, God. In one of my current life roles, I mark EFL (English as a foreign language) reading and writing exams for a well-known UK college. By contract, I’m not allowed to say which one. We markers have fairly strict matrices to follow, and are ourselves tested at the outset of each new exam. (That’s at least monthly; they call it ‘standardisation’, since the goal is that we’ll all mark the same. Hah!) I am frequently frustrated by how much weight is given to punctuation at the expense of appropriate use of a given grammatical structure, within the part of the mark that is dedicated to ‘linguistic competence’. Now I’m just glad I don’t have to mark primary schoolchildren’s tests!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It must be painful to work within a marking structure that fits its own purpose so badly. But again, when you standardize testing, you have to test for the things that can be standardized–which may well not be the things that matter.


      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes. Though to be fair, on these tests, we actually DO also give marks for thinking. Sometimes I wish I was involved in the setting of the exam questions (and expected answers). Other times, I remember that I only want part time work, and acknowledge that I can’t have it both ways.

        Liked by 1 person

        • And for the sake of balance, the problems of standardized testing aren’t exactly new. I remember reading comprehension tests at the end of every year: We’d read a paragraph and answer dumb questions about it. There were probably others, but those are the ones I remember–probably because whatever the equivalent was in math was so traumatizing that I’ve blanked it out. Or I understood so little that it wasn’t traumatizing at all–just white noise.

          Liked by 1 person

  15. Thanks for this report. Here, in the United States, the same testing madness reigns. It’s important to understand that this is a greedy world-wide effort to grab public educational dollars and re-direct them to private interests. One of the mechanisms the privatisers use is the standardized test. Control of testing gets the privateers to determine curriculum and instructional strategies, which the privateers will then gladly sell to you. Nothing at all to do with students or education.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Dear Heavens ! I didn’t realize that the Plague (or is it plaque?) of US education had spread ! Yes, semi-colons, solid geometry on the fifth-grade math standards (just implemented when I mercifully retired.)
    On the other hand, essays are a bear to grade. I used to “grade” creative writing on the story and ignore any punctuation errors or misspellings. I corrected them, but I didn’t count off for it, knowing that in the throes of a really good thought, Things Happen ! (I once had a character in a rather dramatic situation “go out to the chicken for a drink of water.”) Therefore, you could get an A+ on a paper that had so many red marks it looked like it bled to death. One of the other English teachers berated me and threatened to report me to the principal. Big whoop ! One of my students once got back such a paper and I pulled her aside and told her I thought it was publishable and she should make the corrections and send it off. So there !

    Liked by 1 person

    • I edited a writers magazine and I can report that any number of published writers need heavy editing. Including one who considered herself the ultimate authority on good writing. I wouldn’t recommend linguistic sloppiness, but writers can and do survive it. I also taught writing. Lucky for me it was mostly in situations where I didn’t have to grade anyone. I have no idea how to do that. Maybe real writing should be a grade-free zone, where the writer gets comments instead. I know that’s impractical in our grade-based system, but it would solve a lot of problems. And, I’m sure, bring us others.

      Now about that drink of water: I imagine a chicken waiting with a tin cup of lovely cool water. Thanks for that image.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. I read everyone’s comments and couldn’t but agree with most of them.

    Ellen Hawley said: “It [the British education system] all sounds so rigid that I can’t imagine how creative teachers keep their sanity.”

    The answer is: “with great difficulty”. That’s why there’s a crisis in recruitment and retention of teachers in the UK right now. A crisis that the government is trying to pretend doesn’t exist. But this ridiculous, government-imposed, vice-like grip on the minutiae of education in Britain has been going on for years now. My sister was a (very good) infant school teacher for many years, but she took early retirement in the late ‘90s, because she was fed up with the politicians’ increasing attempts to control teachers and the curriculum in the name of “raising standards”. Her headmistress left shortly afterwards. The replacement head was an administrator who knew how to tick the government’s boxes, and didn’t seem to like children very much. Within a few months what had been a happy school with happy children who were eager to learn was turned into a miserable place that got ok Ofsted reports because all right the boxes were ticked.
    Donna Cameron said: “Not everything that matters can be measured, and not everything that can be measured matters.”

    That’s exactly it. But the politicians have lured themselves into thinking that everything can be measured and should be. Why is that? Well, Christine Valento said about testing in the US: “follow the money trail”. I can well imagine that being so in the USA, but it’s not quite the case her in the UK – at least not yet.

    I think the main origin of this testing nonsense is politicians wanting to be in control, and not understanding the difference between controlling and enabling. Good teachers, and a good teaching system are enablers, not controllers. These days, for democratic politicians, appearing to be in control is everything. Why? Because underneath it all, said politicians are very insecure. Unlike autocratic rulers, they can lose their mandate just like that. So they have to be seen to be “fixing”, in short order, whatever things they’ve convinced themselves the electorate are concerned about. With the result that they fall into the trap of going into command and control mode, rather than enabling mode (which is how good politicians should work most of the time).

    So, perceived falling standards in schools? It must be the teachers not teaching properly (forget about lack of resources – it costs money to sort that out, and taxes mustn’t go up or we’ll lose the next election). How to fix it quick? Tell the public repeatedly that teachers don’t know what they’re doing but the government’s going to sort them out. Bring in a rigid, bureaucratically-originated, National Curriculum. Teach only stuff that can be tested. Set lots of tests. Rate the teachers and the schools on how good the test results are. Punish the teachers and schools that do badly. Job done.

    This is all based on so many false assumptions that it’s hardly believable, but it’s happened.
    One of the biggest lies is that you can increase the quality of a complex, human-centred service, like the education of children, by applying quality control methods deriving from industrial production systems. This sort of thing:

    Posit: children are empty widgets on a long production line (running from ages 4 to 18) whose heads need to be filled with education stuff to the right level of quality. To ensure quality: a) define the production processes rigidly and in minute detail (teaching standards, National Curriculum, etc.), b) run the processes (schooling), c) ensure no deviation from the processes, d) test and measure repeatedly at all stages in the production process. Central controller (Ofsted) checks relevant quality boxes are ticked. And, bingo! Perfectly educated kids, all ready to be packed and delivered to their employers.

    Besides the fact that children are obviously not widgets to be filled with education stuff, this whole quality model is a joke because it’s long been recognised in industry that ensuring you produce quality products to time and budget is more complicated than that. A friend of mine, who has worked in industrial quality assurance for many years, told me that these days, quality models are very much based on customer outcomes: you ask the customer what they think about the delivered product/service and then fix your processes and train your people accordingly. And you also devolve responsibility for quality down to the lowest possible levels in your organisation. Which is how our education system used to be – at least in part. Teachers and head teachers had the discretion to adapt what and how they taught to the needs of the children, and the measures of success were far more than just exam results.

    This same sort of quality model error has pervaded almost all areas of public service in the UK, the NHS being the most glaring example next to the education service. There was a very good Four Thought program on Radio Four about this very issue couple of weeks ago: “Intelligent Kindness in Healthcare”
    “John Ballatt calls for a new approach to supporting the NHS, using ‘intelligent kindness’ to transform the culture of healthcare. Simplistic faith in industrialisation and procedural rules leads us to tell staff what to do, when, how and with what result, and to monitor them with quite ruthless intrusiveness. Inevitably this distracts, creates anxiety, squeezing out the very intelligence, and kindness, upon which good work depends.”

    I couldn’t have said it better. And the same applies to the teaching profession too.

    N.B. The podcast is on the BBC web site at:

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow. All I can think of to say to that is Yes. It might be a step in the right direction if schools were run–from the top down–by teachers. And the NHS–ah, well, my point just fell apart, because I’ve watched what the Cornwall CCG (the doctors who were supposed to run the NHS) in action and it’s not an encouraging example.


      • Doctors (and teachers) don’t necessarily make good managers or organisers, though some do of course. But what we do need are managers at all levels who understand the needs of the organisation’s “customers” (patients, schoolchildren) and how best to enable the professionals (doctors, nurses, teachers) to meet those needs. And no amount of industrial quality control standards and procedures or other sorts of box ticking is going to achieve that – in fact, taken to extreme as is so often the case, these things will be counter productive. Oh and naturally we need the politicians to “get” this and stop interfering. No role for the Govinator then!

        I suspect that the Cornwall CCG is a classic failed attempt to “improve” the NHS by creating a market for services and then awarding the contract to the lowest bidder, irrespective of their experience in healthcare management. I guess that if G4S had bid at a lower price the contract would have been awarded to them instead. G4S would then have recruited local jobseekers on zero hours contracts to see to the health of the people of Cornwall.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Something like that, only it was Serco. At one point, they had one lone out-of-hours doctor trying to cover all of Cornwall. Plus they dumbed down the telephone answering system, getting rid of the expensive people who actually had medical experience and replacing them with people who, I assume, knew about as much as I do and had to rely on a computer program. “You say you’re bleeding. Okay. Are you experiencing any heart palpitations? No? Anxiety? Okay. What about suicidal thoughts?”

          It led to more ambulance call-outs, which are expensive but didn’t come out of Serco’s budget, so that was okay.

          When they got in trouble, they walked away from the contract.

          When my partner worked in mental health in the U.S., they used to talk about the bean counters–the business school types who knew nothing about doing therapy but made the decisions anyway. That’s what was on my mind when I started my short rant about teachers organizing the schools, etc. I agree that doctors and teachers and therapists and nurses aren’t necessarily good administrators–and why should they be? But somewhere in here, we need to start valuing their expertise and creating conditions that allow them to do their jobs.

          I’ll stop here. I have no sense of humor on the subject.


          • Neither have I. It just makes me angry that people could even think that sort of bean-counting attitude was acceptable in medical care/social care/teaching/…
            But then what would you or I know? After all, we’re not bankers or politicians.

            Liked by 1 person

  18. Where do I begin? l’ll start with, I am a teacher. Oh, and I hope my commas are appropriately placed. Ha! In the States we also have ridiculous standardized testing. I live in Massachusetts, and the MCASS has driven teachers to quit. Who wants to teach to the test? I certainly want to teach to the child. Children all have different learning styles, and a test merely puts a square peg into a round hole. I digress… apologies. What’s missing is the joy of learning and discovering. There is no joy in testing. Thank goodness I teach the young ones and can ‘seize the moment’. My secret tool? Reading aloud; a good book can take ‘forever’ to read because I constantly stop to talk and question. Sprinkle heavily with enthusiasm, and there you have it! Oh, I hope my semicolon is placed correctly. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  19. I scored standardized testing for a few years, both math and grammar. Our standards were much lower. If the sentence required a comma and there was something that looked anything like a comma in the appropriate place, we assumed it was a comma. Unfortunately, in many cases, it didn’t really help the score.

    Liked by 1 person

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