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'The new times tables tests already divide, but will they help conquer the Pisa rankings?'

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New year, new madness. Primary school headteachers received their 2016 greetings from the government courtesy of the Sunday newspapers.

In a move to show how tough the government is on educational standards, and to clamber up the Pisa rankings, came the announcement of a new computerised test for times tables up to 12 as part of key stage 2 Sats. The message may have come from education secretary Nicky Morgan, but it was textbook Nick Gibb.

Let’s leave aside the fact that we have decimal currency and a metric system for measurement, rendering the 12 times table redundant, that none of the high-performing countries the government is aiming to emulate uses national times tables tests (see pages 18-19 of this week's TES magazine for more on why the new multiplication tests are dividing opinon) and that there’s a big question mark over whether schools have the tech to implement it.

The biggest problem with the announcement is that it did a massive disservice to primary schools. Times tables are already on the curriculum in Year 4, but the message the public took away from this was that schools have not been teaching them at all. Cue the usual outraged letters to the national newspapers about how it wasn’t like that in my day, how education has gone to the dogs, etc, etc.

Remember, our primaries are actually performing rather well, with 83 per cent judged good or outstanding by Ofsted, compared with 73 per cent of secondaries. This was certainly one way of closing the gap between the two (keep reading those motivational books over at the Department for Education).

Among teachers it was a bit of an Aunt Sally (no, not the one who drinks too much gin at Christmas), sparking disagreement about the place of rote learning in understanding mathematics. Like the traditional versus progressive debate, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have both.

These new times table tests will be piloted by 3,000 students in 80 schools this summer before being rolled out in 2017.

Once again, there’s that word “all”. Is the government really saying that all pupils can take the test? Has it forgotten the children with SEND? What also seems to have been forgotten is what happened with the EBac – that “all” quickly had to be revised down to 90 per cent.

While we’re embracing tests, over the other side of the pond, parents and school districts are turning against them, which is unsurprising given that the average US student takes 112 mandatory standardised tests between pre-kindergarten and the end of high school (see pages 24-30).

The rebellion started among parents, was fuelled by unions and cemented by President Barack Obama, who famously declared: “When I think back on the great teachers in my life, what I remember isn’t the way they prepared me for a standardised test.”

The number of tests is now being cut nationally, although not necessarily federally. But Pisa boss Andreas Schleicher points out that the US isn’t the most tested nation. According to his data, most systems give their students more standardised tests, including high-performing countries in Asia and the Netherlands and Belgium.

Over here, as in America, it’s not the number of tests but the high-stakes nature of them – for teachers, as well as pupils – that’s the issue.

Of course, there has to be accountability but it should support the system, not an ideology. The new times table test may put another tick against Tory manifesto pledges, but it reveals a government mistaking politics for governance.

@AnnMroz

This is an article in the 8 January edition of TES. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here. Or pick up the magazine in all good newsagents. 

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