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End of the line for teaching to the test

New national key stage papers aim to foil pupils who use mechanical methods and reward real understanding, report Helen Ward and Michael Shaw

TEACHING to the test will be harder next year following changes to national tests for 7, 11 and 14-year-olds.

The changes, drawn up by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, are the first major revamp since the tests were introduced a decade ago.

They have been welcomed by subject bodies who worry that teachers are encouraging pupils to use mechanical and formulaic methods to achieve the highest possible test mark, rather than giving them real understanding of the subject matter.

From 2003:

* maths tests will include more questions that ask pupils to explain their working;

* science papers will have more questions that test children's knowledge of how to set up experiments. Children in Year 6 will get an extra 10 minutes, reflecting the need for more "thinking time"; and

* there will be no choice of writing tasks for 11-year-olds. At all three key stages, writing will be divided into a short task and a long task.

Changes in English include dropping the separate handwriting test for 11-year-olds - it will now be assessed in the writing tasks. A separate reading booklet will also be introduced at key stage 3.

Roger Mitchell, primary chairman of the Association of Science Education, said: "I am really encouraged by the changes. The curriculum tends to be driven by the KS2 tests."

Buckinghamshire's science adviser Chris Lloyd-Staples has written to heads saying that emphasising factual recall rather than experience of practical work could put pupils at a potential disadvantage.

Jane Loder, head of Ashmead primary in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, experimented with teaching to the tests last year. Its PANDA (performance and assessment data) grade for science jumped from E to A*.

She said: "I do not want us to go down the line of teaching to tests. We did it last year to prove a point, to show that we could jump through the hoops, and the results were amazing.

"But if the results are just because we taught to the test, they make a mockery of them."

Despite this success, Mrs Loder welcomes the new exams which she said would suit pupils.

Barry Lewis, president of the Mathematical Association, said: "I particularly like pupils communicating more about the strategies they use. Maths is not just a repetitive skill but a thinking process."

Trevor Millum, development and communications director for the National Association for the Teaching of English, said: "Teachers have been teaching to the test. It remains to be seen whether the reviewed tests will significantly alter that."

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