‘Campbell’s Law: the unintended consequences of the school testing regime’. By Professor Alastair Sharp

Most of us have heard of ‘Peter’s Principle’ (“Employees tend to rise to 
their level of incompetence”) and ‘Parkinson’s Law’ (‘Work expands so as 
to fill the time available for its completion’). Both point to unintended

In the educational sphere a new ‘law’ has been adopted: Campbell’s Law.
This states that “when test scores become the goal of the teaching 
process, they lose their value as indicators of educational status and
 distort the educational process in undesirable ways”. (1)

Some commentators have indicated that the micro-management of education,
 and the exam based culture that has developed at an increasing pace over 
the last decade, has resulted in a distortion of education and a decline 
in the very nature of the humanist tradition on which many education 
systems have been based. The humanist tradition in education aims to 
promote intellectual and emotional development, and aims to inspire an 
interest and a desire to learn, with the ultimate purpose of teaching the 
young how to live happier, healthier and more fulfilling lives. There is 
little evidence that this is what is happening in England’s test obsessed 
education system.

Campbell’s Law talks of distortions. What kind of ‘distortions’ have
 occurred? School league tables, ‘payment by results’ for teachers and 
pressure on school students have inevitably resulted in the need to ‘teach 
to the test’. Teaching to the test can be defined as a concentration on
 skills and activities that increase test scores with little concern for 
the depth of learning or understanding. This ‘commodification of 
learning’ results when education becomes merely a test score. A reduced
 concern for education is necessary as teachers prepare students for a
narrowly focused test on which schools and students are judged. School
 education and instruction has become increasingly measurement driven – if
 you can’t measure it, exclude it!

Test scores and educational standards are not the same thing.

There has been a narrowing of the curriculum: music and drama are 
favourites for neglect. Rote learning replaces higher order learning. 
Schools have to teach exam strategies and rote learned responses, with 
more low-level, drill-and-skill teaching. Problem solving and creativity 
are vital in a curriculum, but are very hard to test. They cannot be 
tested at all using the most common format for testing: multiple-choice 

The reports of cheating at a north London primary school in October 2013
 were nothing new (2). 370 schools were reported for cheating last year by 
the Government’s ‘Standards and Testing Agency’ (3). The Association of 
Teachers and Lecturers reported that 35% of teachers felt that testing
 pressures were so great that they would consider cheating (manipulating 
test scores, remarking assessments, re-writing coursework) (4).

And then there is the problem of marking tests… why are we deluded into 
thinking that they will always be precise, reliable and valid? Essay type
 questions for example can be notoriously difficult to assess objectively. 
Exams are marked by fallible humans beings.

Schools that slip down the league tables are pushed into improving their 
test preparation. But is this the same as improving the education they 

Campbell’s Law states that: ‘the more any quantitative social indicator is 
used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption 
pressures and the more apt will it be to distort and corrupt the social
processes it is intended to monitor’.

The clear inference of Campbell’s Law is that the over-reliance on 
quantitative scores as a measure of performance for students, teachers and 
schools has had clear and damaging effects on all those concerned and the 
very process itself.

And if this were not enough, there is very worrying evidence that exam 
pressure may be a contributing factor behind the rise in self-harming and
 suicidal behaviour amongst young people. Child Line reported a 59%
increase in the number of self-harm callers in 2010-2011 compared to the 
previous year. 86% of the respondents admitted that depression was the 
main reason for calling and admitted to hurting themselves as a way of 
’coping’. A survey of 6020 students by the Samaritans found that 70% of 
those self-harming, with accompanying suicidal thoughts, had stated that
 this was because of worries about school work and exams. Young Minds, the
 UK mental health charity, is currently involved in a two-year project 
looking directly at the damage being done to children by the target-driven
 curriculum in England. Of course these issues are complicated and
 suicidal behaviour has multiple causes, not least the strong connections 
with depression and other mental health problems. But there are worrying
 connections with exam stress: this needs urgent investigation (5).

Is it not time we paused to re-think what is being done in the name of
 education? Why this obsession with measurement? High stakes exams were
never this frequent when I was young. We have always accepted the need for 
assessment: it can be motivational, as well as judgmental. But 
over–testing is obstructing education. It is time to do something about 


Alastair Sharp

Professor of Linguistics, Hong Kong.

Deputy Director, Samaritans, Hong Kong


1. Campbell, D.T. (1976) Assessing the impact of planned social change.
New Hampshire, US: Public Affairs Centre

2. Newton Farm School, Harrowgate.

3. Standards and Testing Agency.

4. Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

5. The information in this paragraph is supported by data from Education
and Health Journal, vol 31 (2013) http://sheu.org.uk/x/eh311as.pdf

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