THE GOVERNMENT is to try out the introduction of a possible replacement for national curriculum tests. From September, schools in around 10 local authority areas will be piloting a new system in which pupils will sit shorter tests as soon as their teacher believes they are ready to take them.
In time, ministers say this could replace the current national tests, which have been a feature of school life since the early 1990s.
Does this mean the end of national curriculum tests?
No. If the trial runs successfully, within three years pupils might start taking a different type of test. Instead of all sitting down at the end of key stages 2 and 3 to take a test on the same day, each pupil would sit an assessment when their teacher believed they were likely to pass. In the trial, tests in English and maths will be set at a single level of difficulty, ranging from national curriculum level 3 to 8. Levels one and two will continue to be teacher assessed.
Twice a year - probably in December and May - pupils from Years 3 to 9 will have the chance to sit a test, at any level.
If a pupil fails under this system, they can retake it at the next testing "window".
Will the tests still be externally set and marked?
Yes. They will be developed by a testing body and approved by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. They would be externally marked.
How long will the new tests be?
The Government promises that they will be shorter than the current end of key stage tests. However, the time reduction is unlikely to be huge.
Officials have suggested an assessment currently lasting 90 minutes might be reduced to an hour.
Will the "when ready" tests assess more of the national curriculum than the current tests?
No. They will test similar aspects of English and maths as are currently assessed.
What about science?
Ministers have decided to concentrate on English and maths during the pilot, partly because science results have traditionally been good and partly because results in English and maths are more fundamental to the pupils' future progress.
Does this mean the end of league tables?
No. Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, has stressed they are here to stay. The new tests will also be used to rank schools.
How about targets?
The new tests will still allow the Government to measure the percentage of pupils crossing a particular threshold at the end of key stages. Mr Johnson said that doing away with these targets would be "an absolute disaster".
The new regime will also mean extra progression targets being set for the percentage of pupils in each school progressing through two curriculum levels during a key stage.
What is the "progression premium"?
A controversial plan to reward schools that do well under the new tests with more money.
They would receive extra funding worth five per cent of their per pupil allocation for each additional student achieving two levels progress in a subject compared to the school's performance the previous year. The idea has been given a frosty reception by teaching unions, with the Association of Teachers and Lecturers warning it is just another name for the concept of payment by results tried unsuccessfully by the Victorians.
Why do ministers think this new plan is necessary?
They are concerned that current tests and targets encourage schools to concentrate their efforts on pupils who are on the verge of crossing a particular threshold.
This can mean that those at the top of the ability spectrum are being left to coast while those at the bottom, with no hope of reaching the threshold, are similarly neglected. The hope is that the new tests and targets will provide an incentive for schools to ensure that every pupil makes the maximum progress. Ministers also say that only formally testing pupils at the end of key stages prevents teachers from using the results to improve pupils' learning.
What will be done to help pupils lagging behind?
Those who are behind when they begin a key stage and who continue to make poor progress during the pilot will be offered 10 hour-long intensive sessions of one-to-one tutoring.
Can the new tests be used for assessment for learning?
Certainly not, according to Professor Dylan Wiliam, the academic who popularised the technique recommended in last week's Gilbert report, which involves using information gained through assessment to inform future teaching. He warned the results from the new tests would be "absolutely useless" for assessment for learning as their use in compiling league tables meant teaching to the test was inevitable.
He welcomed the new tests as summative measures. But he warned their success would depend on teachers holding back and only entering for pupils when they were certain they had reached their highest possible level in the key stage.