'The new times tables tests don't test depth of knowledge – it's purely recall'

This teacher was part of the new times tables test trials this week. Here, he asks: could the proposed 'test window' see an increase in the number of schools gaming the system?

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This week has been an interesting week in school. Some time ago, we were invited by the Standards and Testing Agency (STA) to take part in a trial for the new Year 4 times tables tests.  When my headteacher asked me if I was interested, I jumped at the chance to maybe have some influence over the tests that are due to come in when our current Year 2 children end Year 4.

Before anyone jumps on the “not more testing” bus, please allow me to be objective in looking at the test, the way it is possibly going to be administered and the potential pitfalls as I see them.

The test is web-based and platform-independent but does rely on having internet connectivity. The first problem I raised was that many small, rural schools can often have connectivity issues – I was assured that this should not be an issue as there will be a test window, akin to the current Year 1 phonics check. There is also a small buffer built into the coding so that, should connectivity fail mid-test, it will still be possible to send back results to the server when connection is restored.

Now a test window sent slight shivers down my spine and I raised the point that if this was to become high-stakes testing for schools then teachers will be under pressure to game the system, allowing their “better” children to take the test early in the window and coaching those who need more help. This query will hopefully be fed back to the STA and answered. What I was told is the results will appear on ASP in the same way as the phonic screening results do, but the researcher couldn’t tell me if they will be used to form judgements on the school. Whilst, like many, I’m not against the principle of testing, I am vehemently opposed to these tests being seen as another performance indicator to beat schools and headteachers with.

Enough time to recall times tables?

So to the test itself. Originally it was intended that we would administer the test to Year 6 pupils. Through research (I’m assuming some ed-psych input here), it was assumed that a child who could recall times tables would take three seconds to find the answer then two seconds to input it. Thus a five-second window is given for each question. I’m not sure this is a valid or appropriate timescale for a Year 4 child, bearing in mind that the objective is to know times tables up to 12×12 by the end of Year 4, and I suggested that this window should be increased. The time window is up for debate – if the aim of the test is to assess rapid recall of known number facts then I would suggest 10 seconds would be more age-appropriate; any longer and we are asking the child to work out the answer (leave that argument aside for the moment).

The children see instructions for the test, take three practice questions to show them the style/time and then enter the test. For our version, the children had 10 questions – the final version will be 25.

Questions are set in sets – feasibly it would be possible for three children to sit alongside each other in a computer room and take different tests, but I am assured the questions are weighted so that no child will just get 25 questions on the two and 10 times tables!

Again, let’s leave aside the need for the test and look at the mechanics. The test can be taken on any device with a web browser, so we chose to administer it to some children on a PC and some on an iPad. The first extremely noticeable issue for me was a lack of keyboard skills in my class. As we move towards more touch-screen devices, I see this as an issue, which is why, as computing coordinator, I’m pushing for a mixed array of devices in schools. However, I’m assured that there will be no direction on what device to use, so that issue may be moot. My children did struggle at times with using either the number pad on a full-sized QWERTY keyboard or using the on-screen number pad to input their answer in the time given. It was frustrating to watch children who knew the answers not being able to input them before the question changed. As a trial, I took two children who had struggled on the PC to resit the test on the iPad. These children had greater success as they were not required to multi-task to the same level. My advice would be to administer the test on a touch-screen device in the future.

We also looked at potential issues with the test for special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) children, particularly those with accessibility issues. Whilst my class has none of those, I do have children with potential issues of dyscalculia/dyslexia, and my concern is how we make allowances for those children as we would in Sats. This is another question the researcher has taken back to the STA.

In all, I do see merit in a properly administered, meaningful test. There are issues with the mechanics at the moment, but these are nothing that cannot be quickly solved. The researcher agreed that the time window may be too small but was at pains to explain why it is as it is at the moment. My concern is that we are not testing any depth, purely recall. Now, this kind of rote learning worked for me as a child but I think I would rather see a child able to use whatever method suited them to mentally work out an answer then entering it. My headteacher and I both spoke to the researcher about this issue; I’m not sure there is an answer that will suit everyone.

What I do see, though, is a rush for schools to buy into a programme such as @TTRockstars to promote gamifying of the recall element. I know I came straight out of the meeting and recommended it to my headteacher and maths leader. 

Colin Grimes is a primary school teacher. He tweets @MrGPrimary and blogs here

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