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Pilot world-class tests did stretch brightest

Pupils responded well to trials of the new exams but doubts about their usefulness persist. Geraldine Hackett reports

SCHOOLS that tried out the new "world-class" tests for the most able pupils say children found them suitably challenging.

They also said suggested that fears the tests would be too stressful proved to be unfounded.

Ministers are keen to introduce the tests in maths and problem-solving for the top 10 per cent of nine and 13-year-olds. The papers, developed by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, are also being offered to other English-speaking countries.

At Claydon high school in Ipswich, the 13-year-olds selected to try out the tests found the questions interesting.

The brightest nine-year-olds at South Farnham community school in Surrey spent an hour sorting out the strategies needed to solve the problems they had been set. "We had about 15 children doing the tests and they found them very challenging," said Susan Shoveller, the deputy head. "They are all high-achievers and they are used to being given extension work."

She did not think pupils would find them stressful. "As long as the children are well-prepared and the test matches their ability, I do not think schools should have problems," she said.

However, Stephen Abbott, deputy head at Claydon, had reservations about schools taking on another set of tests.

"When they become national tests, that will introduce competition and bring stress."

Mr Abbott, who is also president of the Mathematical Association, was concerned that ministers had not paid attention to what will happen t pupils who do well in the tests.

He said: "They will be expecting some kind of pay-off in terms of being offered more advanced work." Even though teachers would try to provide that, he said, they would be hampered by the fact that there was no money to train staff to deal with gifted and talented pupils.

Among academics there are doubts about whether the tests can accurately be described as world-class.

According to Tony Gardiner, reader in maths and maths education at Birmingham University, the tests have not been bench-marked for difficulty against others taken worldwide. "There is no intellectual evidence on which to base the claim," he said.

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the centre for education and employment research at Liverpool University, also queried the tests' description. He said:

"I do think it is odd to call them world-class, it rather implies that other tests aren't."

"I do believe it's good to challenge able children, but I would prefer to see the tests integrated more into the existing structure.

"While it is a good idea to have tests that allow children to show what they can do, I don't like the idea of people being picked out and decisions taken on who takes the test." Martin Ripley, director of the world-class tests project at the QCA, confirmed schools would select the pupils to sit the tests, but said parents might also want their children to try them out.

The National Union of Teachers asked whether the tests had any purpose. John Bangs, assistant secretary, said: "This is just another bank of tests for the sake of it."

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