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In the middle of a chain reaction

Bill Laar believes the final link in the testing process - assessment at key stage 2 - will have explosive implications.

Like harnessed plough horses the national curriculum and the Office for Standards in Education are transforming the landscape of primary education. From recent times, when the autonomy of individual schools was widely held to be a sacrosanct glory of the English system, we are whirled to the current legally established entitlement curriculum, where schools are publicly accountable and liable to be publicly arraigned for failure. Proof of value for money is required, teaching competence is officially defined and models of management, more commonly associated with secondary schools, are looked for.

But none of these factors is likely to have such powerful, far-reaching and immediate consequences for primary education as the advent this summer of the apparently innocuous key stage 2 tests. For what these represent is the missing link in an evolutionary chain of performance, stretching from key stage 1 to GCSE, marking a watershed from where primary education will be dominated, conditioned and driven by issues of achievement. Such a systematic and public charting of children's progress against specific curriculum objectives will probably not have been seen since the days of "payment by results".

To understand the full implications of the tests we may need to recall that in the decades following the general ending of selection, many teachers recoiled from the notion of hard-and-fast definitions of what children should be expected to achieve at particular ages, or even stages of development. I have recollections of school governors at headship interviews bewildered by the refusal of otherwise eloquent candidates to speculate about what an "average" seven-year-old should be capable of in relation to numeracy. Not that teachers ever stopped privately assessing children's performance and ability through a variety of means: standardised tests, linguistic competence, reading ability and so on. But the information acquired was sparingly used, not generally conveyed to parents in any precise terms or even necessarily communicated to secondary colleagues.

National tests at 11 will finally mark the end of the tradition, with immense consequences for primary and secondary schools. Key stage 1 tests have already provided some preliminary evidence of the pedagogical challenges created for junior-stage teachers by the arrival of classes of children formally graded from level 1 to level 4 in aspects of the core subjects; of the sharpened interest and escalating demands of parents now aware, for example, that their children may not be merely "good" readers, but have earned a grade and written description that conspicuously distinguishes them from others less able.

Already a school in a disadvantaged urban context is preparing to submit year 6 children for GCSE mathematics with every expectation of success; of schools increasingly turning to "setting" to cater for wide ranges of ability; of reference to national curriculum levels of achievement being decisive in OFSTED inspectors' judgments of teaching and learning. Letts Educational publishers is already recording large sales of books "based upon the official test materials provided to schools", designed to help parents prepare their children for the tests.

The establishment of a formally structured hierarchy of achievement ranging from key stage 1 at seven, to GCSE at 16, will force schools to be performance-driven. It will oblige them to ensure that children are consistently progressing against level descriptions in the core subjects, and to provide explicit evidence of this. It will be commonplace for parents, governors, headteachers, teachers and inspectors, to have definite expectations about the level children should reach by 11 based on their attainments at seven. It might not always be clear to a parent why a child, placed at level 3 in mathematics at seven years of age, has apparently moved on "only" one level in four years. Parents' expectations of eventual GCSE success for children recorded at level 4 at the end of key stage 2 may be even more pronounced, while the not-insignificant numbers of children entering secondary school accredited as level 5 achievers are likely to come accompanied by formidable aspirations.

Teachers will face new and various pressures. The process of standardised testing will generate fresh demands. Important decisions will need to be made about the levels for which children should be entered, when to stop or continue "tasking" and testing, about appropriate provision for special needs and bilingual learners. Teachers' judgments about children's capabilities, in relation to the standardised tests, will need to be based on systematic and informed non-standardised assessment. Many teachers will feel impelled to prepare year 6 children for the business of testing to ensure they do themselves justice. They will want to help pupils develop techniques of perseverance, timing and reviewing; to help them handle unfamiliar formats, layouts, multiple choices and test language. Indeed, a considerable degree of preparatory, "mock" testing based on last year's pilot materials is already taking place in schools.

But coping with largely organisational demands is likely to prove a relatively uncomplicated matter, far less complex and challenging for teachers than providing for the diverse learning needs of classes comprised of children displaying ability levels ranging from "middle" level 1 to "early" level 5. It may be argued that teachers do not require tests to remind them of the need to plan for a wide spread of ability; the Cockcroft Report long ago suggested a seven-year span in such classes. The crucial difference is that children will now carry for the first time, like field marshals' batons in their satchels, their own personal level accreditations, to be acknowledged and carefully responded to. In future the official visitor to the classroom may expect provision and organisation that precisely matches levels; will not need to accept, for lack of information, the incongruity of a child who has attained level 3 in a subject, engaged in work more suited to a child entering level 2. Already OFSTED inspectors are making judgments based on the extent to which schools provide accurately for such diversity.

Strategies such as setting are likely to be considered much more seriously in primary schools, with a knock-on effect for secondary colleagues. The tendency in many secondary schools to introduce all new entrants to common curriculum starting points simply will not be sustainable when children are coming through from primary schools with such a proliferation of levels. Some teachers will need to re-assess how mixed-ability classes are to be organised.

Indeed, the pilot key stage 2 tests, with their high expectations and sophisticated perceptions of, for example, the reading and writing curriculum, have already encouraged considerable pedagogical re-appraisal among primary teachers. For those who envisage a rebirth of the 11-plus phoenix it should be said that the tests are not susceptible to short-circuiting by extensive drilling in the way the old 11-plus tests were. The new national tests are designed to assess children's broad experience in the primary phase and anything less than a curriculum that provides for that is unlikely to circumvent the carefully plotted requirements of the tests.

There is a strong possibility that those subjects not liable to standardised assessment may be increasingly marginalised; this is especially true of music, art and physical education, where assessment requirements seem least stringent. Ironically, the very assessment measures designed to ensure that children's cognitive ability is identified and responded to may come to threaten the broad curriculum to which they are entitled.

And what of the children themselves? I believe that the testing "chain", used not merely to summarise children's attainments but to inform lesson planning, could transform their education for the richer and better, despite the anxiety of many parents and teachers. The danger lies in the possibility of tests and level descriptions being diverted to quite inappropriate labelling that might circumscribe and compartmentalise children, rather than provide insight into the full range of their potential.

* Bill Laar's column, "An Inspector Writes", appears regularly in the TES.

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