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Has the culture of tests gone too far?

They were the assessments that so many wanted but 10 years on even the keenest advocate of key stage testing is calling for a change, reports Warwick Mansell.

THE Government's testing drive for primary school pupils may have gone too far, a leading traditionalist advocate of national curriculum tests this week conceded.

The admission from Nick Seaton, of the right-wing Campaign for Real Education, comes as the tests continue to generate controversy in this, the month of their 10th anniversary.

Over the next few weeks, hundreds of thousands of seven, 11 and 14-year-olds will be put through the testing regime. But divisions over its value remain as entrenched as ever.

Two weeks ago, The TES published results of a survey which revealed that most pupils sit more than 30 tests or teacher assessments before they reach secondary school, with the brightest taking as many as 43.

This, claims Colin Richards, professor of education at St Martin's College, Cumbria, and the survey's author, makes English children the most heavily assessed in the world.

Now Mr Seaton, though remaining a fiercely enthusiastic proponent of testing in principle, has conceded that this may be too much.

He said: "The Government may want to look at the amount of time schools are spending on tests, and the number of papers. Though I don't think pupils feel unduly pressurised, the tests are not perfect and I'm sure they could be simplified."

Mr Seaton contends though that, 10 years on, the tests have achieved their principal goal.

He said: "They provide some fairly basic information to parents, politicians and anyone who wantsto judge the performance of schools.

"They have done what was intended - to make schools and local authorities accountable to their consumers, the parents and children in schools."

Yet opponents of the tests remain just as committed as they were 10 years ago. Bethan Marshall, who led a boycott of key stage 3 English tests in the early 1990s, said: "The full extent of the damage done by the tests has been far worse than even we envisaged when we boycotted them back in 1992-3.

"For a start, we did not have primary league tables back then. When Labour came to power, it not only continued with the tables but set its own targets for the numbers of kids hitting expected levels in key stage 2 tests.

"It has ratcheted up the stress levels in the system, using children's achievements as the means by which success is judged."

John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers, is concerned that whereas the Government and the Office for Standards in Education have recognised the pressures inspections place on schools, there had been no acceptance of teachers' unhappiness with the tests.

He said: "I think the Government has taken away from teachers any sense of ownership in testing and assessment. Teachers see them as a chore, and they do not like league tables, which are only used for invidious comparisons between schools.

"Just as the Government has given a green light to a review of OFSTED and accepted the principle of school self-evaluation, so it should accept the need for change on the tests. Certainly it should get rid of the utter anachronism of league tables."

Letters, 23

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