Exam fever

17th October 1997, 1:00am
Diana Appleyard


Exam fever

Many schools say the optional tests for nine-year-olds are too difficult. Diana Appleyard reports

More than 70 per cent of state primary schools are now using the new optional tests for nine-year-olds - with many hailing them as a "great success", claims the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

But some schools, whose pupils took the tests launched last May, say parts are "too difficult", and the National Association of Head Teachers has reacted angrily to the idea of more tests.

The authority estimates that up to 90 per cent of schools will be using the voluntary tests in two years' time - and claims that some schools say they have no objection to the tests becoming compulsory, although there are no plans for this "at present".

But initial results are described as disappointing. Tim Coulson, the authority's officer responsible for the tests, says: "We had hoped that 90 per cent of the nine-year-olds taking the tests would reach level three or above - but our evaluation project of 400 schools shows only 60 per cent reached that level."

Some of the schools thought the tests were pitched too high. Martin Cooper, class teacher at Park Hill Junior School in Croydon, says many pupils found the mental arithmetic paper too difficult. "We tried it out on Year 6 and they found it hard-going as well. We also found that the English comprehension paper was difficult in parts - the poem in particular was hard for nine-year-olds to analyse."

Arthur De Caux, a senior assistant secretary at the National Association of Head Teachers, reacts angrily to any suggestion that the tests be made compulsory. "Tests are driving the curriculum enough in schools as it is, " he says. "We would be very much against schools being forced to publish the results. They are voluntary at the moment, but it is a bit sad that there is this overkill of the testing culture. It means that more and more teachers are having to coach towards the tests, rather than broadening children's education. "

Despite the authority's claims of widespread take-up, he says he has had "very little feedback" from members over the tests. "If schools are using them as a simple resource, to be taken as and when the teachers see fit, then I think they could well provide a useful function. But the little I have heard suggests they haven't made a great impact."

Pupils are asked to take five tests in English and maths covering reading, writing and spelling, a written maths test and a mental arithmetic test based on a tape.

Pupils take the tests under exam conditions, and are timed. Feedback so far - as reported by the QCA - has shown that most schools thought the tests appropriate for the age level, although some did have problems, such as the poetry comprehension on the English paper being too difficult.

All the papers had progressively more difficult questions, taking pupils through levels two, three and four. On the spelling paper, for example, pupils were asked to spell a variety of words from "over", "own", and "first" on to "vanishing", "height" and "destroyed".

The comprehension paper uses a poem called "Cat", by Judith Nicholls. The questions begin in a straightforward manner, such as "What part of the cat is the poem about?" and "What happens when the cat is asleep?", which relate directly to the text of the poem. But they then move on to interpretation of some of the lines. Question four asks: "Explain what these lines in the second verse mean - 'Warily - it lies awake - all on its own.' " Finally children are asked why they think the poem ends with two questions, and whether it made them think differently about cats - and why. The written maths paper included such questions as, "This jug holds half a litre and this bucket holds five litres - how many full jugs are needed to fill the bucket?" and, "Twenty-eight children go swimming in groups of four - how many groups will there be?"

Again, the questions became more difficult. Martin Cooper says: "We hadn't tested pupils at this age before at all - all we had used was a half-hour IQ test sent out by Croydon education authority, to check how our nine-year-olds were progressing. We didn't prepare them for these tests at all, and they took them in the dinner hall, under timed conditions.

"We did expect one or two to be very nervous, but they seemed to take them in their stride. The tests were particularly useful on several counts. We stream here, and in the maths paper, it showed that three of our pupils were working to an extremely high level - approaching level five. We knew they were good, but not that good. Now we can give them even more intensive support."

He says the school will use the tests again next year, but is opposed to them being made compulsory, and the results published. "I think children are far too up-and-down at this age - their performance changes from day to day to make it an accurate representation of how the school is performing."

Tim Coulson says this echoes what many other schools have said. "I think what most schools have valued is that these are national tests, so it gives them a chance to gauge properly their children's performance - without the onus of having to publish the results." Most schools - like Park Hill Junior - have, however, reported the results to parents.

The authority sent the tests to every primary school in England, and has since spoken to some of the schools who didn't take them up. "What we found is that most schools simply hadn't got round to it, and approved of the idea of optional national tests for nine-year-olds in principle. Many of these schools said they would order the tests for next year. Only 5 per cent said they were ideologically opposed to the idea of more tests," says Mr Coulson.

He argues against Arthur De Caux's view that teachers are being driven too hard by testing - he believes the climate is quite right for the new exams. "Many schools already felt that the four-year gap between the national tests was too long. By the age of nine, schools should be making sure that they are addressing the needs of those children who have not made sufficient progress. In today's climate most schools are now not opposed to testing, and many have said that these tests have allowed them to focus their energy by more effectively monitoring a child's progress."

But Arthur De Caux says they are "yet another layer of testing which teachers don't need".

The authority is now producing a standards report for the DFEE in November, and a new set of tests is already commissioned for a growing number of schools for 1999.

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