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Is this a fair test?

John Stringer looks at why pupils may get lower results in this year's science SATs

A new-style science national test for key stage 2 will make its first appearance this summer. The longer, more enquiry-focused test may result in lower scores for many primary schools, as the questions move away from recall of facts to testing pupils' wider science skills.

The change was publicised in a letter to all primary schools last summer with a sample of what the new questions might look like. Two questions and a commentary on their aims have been added to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority website.

The revised format is aimed at strengthening the tests and improving their quality, while at the same time reflecting changes in teaching practice.

Essentially, the questions emphasise thinking and observational skills.

The test will be 10 minutes longer than in previous years; 45 rather than 35 minutes. It will include questions such as the one about the "rocket launcher" that was included in the 2002 tests, inviting evaluation of data and the strength of evidence.

Children will be asked what an activity is designed to find out, and how it might be done. They will need to identify which factors they are changing and what they are observing or measuring - and what factors they need to control to ensure any test is being conducted fairly.

They will also be asked if it is possible to predict outcomes and they will need to know how to present and interpret results, and whether the results match their predictions. They will need to evaluate how good the evidence is, how it might be improved, and whether it supports any prediction.

The two sample questions are concerned with the strength of carrier bags and with plant growth. The enquiry into the strength of carrier bags is about interpreting data. A table of data that includes an anomalous result is provided, and children are asked to spot this and explain why this bag should be tested again. Finally, they are invited to explain whether the evidence supports a given conclusion.

The plant question invites open-ended planning. Children are asked to think of a question about growing plants they can investigate. They then plan the investigation, recording the factor they would change, what they would observe or measure, and what factors they would control.

These are not the kind of questions for which last-minute "teaching to the test" is likely to be effective. Schools will need to have worked through a plan aimed at developing children's science and observation skills in many different contexts and over a long period of time.

The challenge of these tests is not just for the teachers and the pupils; the people marking and moderating the test papers will also find their task challenging, since questions as open-ended as these will stimulate a wide range of answers.

You can find out more about the changes and sample questions from the QCA website essential book explaining the teaching and learning of science investigations is Making Sense of Primary Science Investigations, published by the Association for Science Education pound;10. Tel: 01707 283001

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