The way the 11-plus works in Kent is like “rolling a loaded dice”, according to a new study.
Researchers from Education Datalab said they found “arbitrariness” in who passes the test in the county, and that several parts of the process act together to make disadvantaged children less likely to get into grammar schools.
The research found that children eligible for free school meals scored particularly poorly in the reasoning element of the Kent 11-plus, which is the paper which has the biggest gap in average marks between FSM-eligible pupils and other students.
It said there was evidence that results for this part of the test are particularly affected by access to private education or tutoring. While the English and maths parts of the test are covered in national curriculum materials, reasoning is not - meaning the only students who are able to gain familiarity with reasoning questions are those whose parents help them practice, those who pay for private coaching, and those at private schools.
The study also highlights the arbitary nature of the 11 plus. Under the Kent test, to pass students must gain a minimum overall mark across all their tests, and a minumum mark in each of the three key papers which comprise the test. According to Education Datalab's analysis, in 2015 400 children – about 8 per cent of those passing – would have failed Kent’s 11-plus if they had dropped a single mark on one of the three papers.
Education Datalab discovered that relatively small changes to the rules that determine who has passed or failed the test result in “material changes” to who gets into grammar schools.
For example, the research looked at how different test systems would impact admissions, including the pre-2014 Kent test, and an alternative test system which is typically used by grammars in other parts of the country.
It found that a "sizeable group of children" – ranging from about 5 to 9 per cent of the total, or 800-1,300 children – who get in under the current system in Kent, would not get in if the rules were changed. An equivalent number of children who do not currently get in would replace them.
Education Datalab said the assessment companies responsible for creating the 11-plus tests "must be more transparent about the extent to which children are likely to have been misclassified".
Rebecca Allen, the organisation's director, said: “With only around one in four children getting in to grammar school – and with the odds stacked against those from poorer backgrounds – securing access to a grammar school in Kent is like rolling a loaded dice.”
“If selection by ability is to be rolled out nationally there are some important lessons that need to be learnt from how the 11-plus operates in Kent. Passing or failing the 11-plus is a life-changing event and so parents deserve much greater clarity about the extent to which the system risks misclassifying their children.”
This week's Tes magazine has an in-depth interview with Rebecca Allen, the director of Education Datalab. Subscribers can read the full article here. Tes is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here