A national obsession

19th January 2001 at 00:00
'World-class testing' may be just a diversion from the crisis at home, says Peter Lacey

The QCA has helpfully put some "pilot items" for the proposed world-class tests on its website www.qca.org. ukcatestswct - not to be confused with QCA of Quaint Christmas Amusements fame, a thriving dotcom company that creates interesting mathematical puzzles to occupy people over the Christmas period.

Why is this country so engrossed with testing? A world-class curriculum with world-class teaching would be more laudable and sensible aims.

Some of these "pilot items" are good. They stimulate mathematical thinking, reasoning and discussion. My own school maths progress was unremarkable, but it was problems of this sort that lit embers of interest that in later life were rekindled into a passion for the subject and led to further study and a career in teaching and maths education. Reserving challenging mathematical problems for a "top 10 per cent" runs the risk of missing opportunities to engage young people in maths by taking away that element which can whet their appetite.

I cannot understand why this development is aimed at nine and 13-year-olds. What is really needed is something to stretch and challenge 11 and 14-year-olds. The current "extension" tests at the end of key stage 2 and 3 are unimaginative. They test content at the next key stage rather than challenge deeper understanding and wider application of maths content defined by the programmes of study in the current key stage. The "world-class" test teams have shown some ability to do this, so why has the testing regime not been brought into line with the national curriculum key stages?

I welcome the move to identify early gifted and talented mathematicians. Their achivements should be recognised and their needs met. This critically depends on good maths teachers. Tests do not provide solutions. At best they provide a reasonably valid and reliable measurement. In seeking improvement, the balance of effort and expenditure between measurements and solutions needs to be challenged.

Some of the solutions proposed are themselves questionable. For example, Year 6 entry to GCSE to achieve a modest grade is more an indictment of the quality of GCSE than a measure of pupils' achievement. The stark difference between GCSE and world-class test questions speaks for itself. What is the expected GCSE grade of a 13-year-old who answers all the world class test questions correctly? Who is the better 13-year-old mathematician - one who gains a GCSE grade C or one who gains more than 75 per cent on the tests? Which is the more valid form of assessment?

The label "world-class tests" verges on the pretentious. "The tests will be benchmarked against standards in other key countries which, it is hoped, will participate in the development and subsequent use of the tests." So runs the QCA commentary. But what is a "key country"? Are there "unkey countries"?

World-class tests are a diversion. Schools are crying out for good maths teachers. Teacher supply is on the brink of crisis. These "pilot items" provide much-needed curriculum enrichment to time-stretched teachers. I may use some of the items as part of a selection procedure for the new cohort of maths consultants. But I am left with the feeling that "Nero fiddled while Rome burned".

Peter Lacey is chair of the General Council of the Association of Teachers of Mathematics, 7 Shaftesbury Street, Derby DE23 8YB. Tel: 01332 346599. Web: www.atm.org

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