Editorial: Talking up the tests

David Blunkett adopted a jaunty tone when announcing the 1998 key stage results for English, maths and science. But his upbeat presentation couldn't mask his disappointment.

The maths results for seven and 14-year-olds were underwhelming, as was the science score for the older children. However, it is the 11-year-olds' performance that triggered alarm bells. Science scores seem to have "plateaued" and though more children achieved level 4 in English, the maths results were substantially worse than last year. There are rumours that the poor maths scores cannot be wholly attributed to the new mental arithmetic test - the reason which was put forward by the Government. And reliable sources suggest that boys' reading and writing scores were even more dismal than last year's figures.

Even so, the Government portrays these results as a temporary setback. A cure, it seems, is already on the horizon - the literacy and numeracy hours. But is it? There are few "wonder drugs" in education. The results of clinical trials may seem impressive but somehow the drug loses its efficacy when cleared for general consumption. So we should not get over-excited by maths experiments - such as the one in Barking and Dagenham - which appear to be working miracles.

Nevertheless, if schools are obliged to concentrate on literacy and numeracy their scores should rise - although whether by the required amount we do not know. What we do know is that the tests are inexact measures of attainment. Research shows that a child with a reading age of less than six can be allocated to levels 1, 2 or 3; and 11-year-olds have been known to achieve a C grade at GCSE having been awarded a mere level 5 a few weeks earlier. Key-stage tests are also a poor way of monitoring performance over time; questions change and "pass mark" thresholds can move.

Most politicians know this, but prefer to forget these uncomfortable truths, fearing that such admissions could damage the standards drive. Having talked up the tests as important and reliable indicators, they are stuck with them.

In fact, there is ample evidence (see page 25) that it is a country's cultural attitudes that best explain its educational performance. David Blunkett, we know, wants to change British attitudes to education. It's a laudable ambition - but not one that will be realised in the near future.

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