English SATs 'don't raise standards'

National tests may not tell the truth when they show literacy standards in primary schools to be rising year after year, according to a Durham University study, writes Karen Gold.

The study is the first large-scale independent attempt to verify the huge rises in 11-year-olds' English and maths scores since national tests were introduced in 1995. While it confirms that children really are better at maths, it puts a big question mark over claims that their literacy has improved.

Figures from Durham's Centre for Curriculum, Education and Management suggest that 11-year-olds' reading and vocabulary knowledge - a good overall literacy marker - have not changed significantly since 1997. Yet over the same period (1997-2001), national English tests (SATs) for key stage 2 showed 11 per cent more children gaining level 4.

This rise, if true, would be phenomenal, says professor Peter Tymms from CEM - but with other critics of national tests, he believes that it is not.

High-stakes tests are never fair, he argues: teachers teach to the test, and test-setters and markers boost borderline grades. Professor Tymms said: "When you put a system under enormous pressure and publish results, inevitably it distorts practice. It's in everybody's interest to kid themselves that standards are rising. But it is quite clear to us that they are not."

The Durham figures are based on test results from the centre's Performance Indicators in Primary Schools value-added project. Each year the 122 schools in the project have all their 5,000 Year 6 children tested, to see how much progress they have made since Reception. Each cohort takes the same tests, but they do not prepare for them and the results are not published - crucial factors in ensuring reliability, says Professor Tymms. And he feels that, for reliable measures of standards across the country, national tests should do the same: "We need a secret test given to a random number of children over a number of years, and after that we'll be able to see if standards have changed. At the moment we have a testing system which is being used to monitor standards over time and it isn't up to the task."

A spokesperson for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority said: "QCA evidence and evidence from the Rose enquiry (1999) indicates that the key stage tests are a valid and reliable measure of that achievement nationally. The Durham tests are not standardised against the national curriculum and therefore it is not clear that the two tests are measuring the same thing."

CEM's data can be seen at: http:www.cem.dur.ac.ukSue Palmer's games for speaking and listening - see page 20

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