1999 reading test more boy-friendly;Letter

15th October 1999 at 01:00
MUCH has been made of the dramatic improvement in boys' reading in the key stage 2 national tests this summer (TES, October 8).

Michael Barber, of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has claimed that these results can be attributed to the literacy hour. Teachers agree that the hour has indeed helped to focus boys' attention but consider it premature to make grandiose claims for a strategy which most pupils had only experienced for two terms.

Education minister Estelle Morris praises the teachers for their hard work and she is right to do so. Many who had reservations about the literacy hour have made enormous efforts to make it successful. Teachers have also learned how to prepare children better for tests and 1999 saw booster classes.

However, I suspect that the main reason for the improvement in the boys' scores lies in the content and the format of the 1999 paper, compared with that in 1998. In 1998 pupils had to read an 850 word extract from a story about two children being evacuated from Germany in December 1938.

The main character was a girl, most of the illustrations were of girls, women and a doll. The final pages were an interview with the female author. 38 out of the 50 available marks were based on this passage and included questions such as "Explain how you think Clara feels when ...". Teachers have told me that in 1998 many boys simply could not get through the story in time, or lost interest, or could not cope with the empathy required to answer the questions.

In 1999 the theme of the reading test was spiders. The text was printed in much larger type and was illustrated by diagrams and cartoons. Some questions required a more sophisticated level of re-sponse but most of the marks were given for factual comprehension.

Does this mean that the 1999 test was easier? I was a member of the independent panel, set up by David Blunkett to scrutinise the test-setting process and to investigate allegations of political interference. We came to the conclusion that the test had been set according to the highest standards of professionalism, that overall standards had been maintained and that there was no evidence of intervention to "fiddle" the results to meet the 2002 targets. However, I was struck by how much more boy-friendly the 1999 test was. I was therefore not surprised to hear that the boys had done so well.

My concern is that, if in 2000 the tests revert to the 1998 approach, the boys will again be seen to be "under-performing" and it will be teachers who get the blame.

Peter Downes 42, Huntingdon Road Brampton,Huntingdon

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