A level of unfairness

13th June 1997 at 01:00
Given the tiny numbers that succeed, and the explicit key stage 3 content, 'extension' tests for 11-year-olds are divisive and a waste of money, argues Andrew Davis

The 1997 national tests season is over - bar the results. Like last year, a modest proportion of long-suffering 11-year-olds were entered for the level 6 "extension" tests. Did their teachers have time to read the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority report on the 1996 assessments, before they decided to put their pupils in for the extra tests? The report would have told them that in English 33,031 children were entered for level 6 last year, and 1,020 obtained it. In mathematics 20,356 were entered, but a mere 435 obtained it.

Why were all those children entered? What was in the minds of those adults, who presumably thought this was a splendid idea? What possible difference will it make to these children at key stage 3 if they go forward to their secondary schools with test awards at level 6 rather than level 5? Does anyone think it is somehow good for the children themselves to know that they have been awarded a level 6? Should this matter more to them than being assessed as level 6 by their teachers?

Whether intentionally or otherwise, SCAA may be appealing to a competitive spirit within schools, between schools, and even among parents. If so, this rather unlovely aspect of the educational scene could profitably be discouraged. The trouble here is not with competition per se, but rather with what schools or parents are competing for.

SCAA says that teachers should consider "whether children have covered the material . . . based on the programme for key stage 3" when deciding whether to enter them at level 6. Presumably in most reputable primary schools the children have not covered the material, since it would be quite inappropriate to do so.

So why are children still being entered for level 6 tests? Given the tiny numbers who succeed, and the explicit key stage 3 content, it seems to be a waste of public money. It gives the misleading signal that "exceptionally able children" (SCAA's phrase) might have appropriately progressed to key stage 3 material at their primary school. A more sensible course of treatment for high-flyers is to ensure that they tackle a wealth of uses and applications of their key stage 2 knowledge. A Tory education minister once suggested that primary teachers enlist the help of secondary colleagues to ensure that their able older juniors are properly stretched. That idea went down like a lead balloon, I seem to remember.

At a very small school near me, an 11-year-old was entered for level 6 in both English and mathematics. To make sure she didn't appear to have been singled out as a special case, several other children, who had even less chance of obtaining level 6 than she had, were also put through the hoop. The class teacher handled matters in a carefree fashion, suggesting that this little group of children have a go "for a bit of fun".

That's all very well, but I worry about the potential damage to the children, particularly in maths. One or more of these pupils could easily have been overwhelmed by an apparently incomprehensible test. As a result, they could begin to feel negative about mathematics in general. Why take this risk? I do wish SCAA had not given the class teacher this very dubious opportunity.

I have anecdotal evidence that secondary schools do not regard a given level of key stage 2 national test result as having the same "meaning" across primary schools. The view is that certain primary schools are good at producing high test scores, but that this is not necessarily connected with sound learning. Many of us would have to work hard to feel surprised about this.

Year 6 teachers vary in the degree to which they "train" children for the tests. On the grapevine one hears of "revision" being conducted by teachers who prematurely opened the test packages - they had, after all, been sitting in school offices for weeks beforehand.

SCAA, meanwhile, would like secondary schools to stop wasting time and money re-testing children once they arrive in key stage 3, and to place more weight on the "information" from their feeder primaries. If a national test level 6 score amounted to "information" of any kind, what precisely could or should a good secondary school do about it?

Dr Andrew Davis is a lecturer in education at the University of Durham

* See Secondary Curriculum, page 18

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