THE aggregate test scores of Britain's schoolchildren have acquired totemic significance in the debate about our education system.
Politicians and commentators are in the habit of dancing around the national averages as if a dropped percentage point here or a statistical anomaly there represented the be-all and end-all of educational improvement.
Once a year, however, we are given a rare opportunity to look at the reality behind the rhetoric. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's detailed analysis of test performance, published last week, puts the bald headline figures in the context of concrete examples of pupils' work and careful readings of individual students' response to questions.
Seven-year-old Emily's writing task, for instance, is used to qualify the apparent good news of a 4 per cent increase in the number of words being spelled correctly at key stage 1 this year. Emily's work, the QCA tells us, demonstrates the continuing heavy reliance of weaker writers on phonic approximations to aid their writing: "One day they lived a laidy hew lived in a bear botl and thay wer no spais for her". Meanwhile, the heroic struggle of seven-year-old Bryn with the word muscles, illustrates improvements in the ability of more able children in combining phonic analysis and visual recall in attempts at self-correction. Bryn started with "musels", crossed it out to replace it with "musecls", before arriving triumphantly at "muscles".
Key stage 1
At KS1, the QCA reports a significant improvement in literacy standards over the past four years, but stresses that attainment in writing still lags well behind reading. According to the authors, children at all levels need to build up confidence in writing in a wider range of non-narrative forms. Less able students need to concentrate on understanding what a sentence is, particularly on the role of full stops and capitals, and on extending their use of connectives other than "and".
For children in the middle of the ability range, key issues include giving more thought to planning the endings of narratives in ways that link to the openings, and using paragraphs more effectively to structure their writing. And, for the top achievers, the QCA recommends planning writing from the outset to allow better control of its overall shape and direction. A better understanding of how variation in sentence structure and length can help to achieve emphasis and cohesion in a text is also urged.
In maths, attainment has risen significantly. However, the QCA stresses that children are dropping marks because of lack of familiarity with different ways in which mathematical operations migh be presented. A subtraction question might, for instance, ask children to "work out the difference" between numbers as well as "take away" one number from another.
Key stage 2
Among 11-year-olds, last year's improvements in maths standards were maintained, with mental arithmetic standards now similar to those in the written tests. Teachers are urged to continue to encourage children to use a variety of mental strategies to help them perform calculations and support the use of informal written techniques - while explaining how they relate to more formal strategies.
Despite an 11 per cent increase since 1992 in the number of 11-year-olds achieving the expected level in English, there are still pressing problems with literacy skills. As at KS1, performance in reading (83 per cent reached level 4 or above) is significantly better than writing (55 per cent reached level 4 or above).
In the writing assessments, although there was evidence of increased use of commas to demarcate clauses, past improvements in punctuation have "not been secure". The use of speech marks is a particular problem for many pupils.
For lower-ability pupils, the examiners repeat many of the same recommendations they make for improving seven-year-olds' writing skills. Children need to use full stops and capital letters accurately, use paragraphs more coherently and vary their sentence structures. Middle-ability students need to use punctuation more accurately and maintain better control of sentence meanings when using complex structures. The report urges top performers to work on "sustaining an appropriate style and organisation in non-narrative writing for different purposes and audiences".
Key stage 3
Standards in maths have risen significantly over the past four years, while English has seen a more modest improvement. The number of pupils gaining level 5 in science has increased this year, but "there has been no consistent upward trend in recent years".
The report recommends that maths teachers work on improving pupils' use of calculators and explanations of their reasoning when tackling problems. English teachers are warned that some pupils found it difficult to manage their time effectively in the 2000 tests and that ineffective use of paragraphs was again observed in the writing tests.
Key stage 3 science teachers trying to bump up their generally stagnant results are urged to concentrate on helping students use scientific language precisely, to use a wide range of contexts to illustrate scientific principles and to consolidate pupils' ability to interpret tables and graphs.
Standards and Evaluation Reports 1999-2000 are available from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, 83 Piccadilly, London W1J 8QA. Website: www.qca.org.uk