The best laid tests...

28th July 1995 at 01:00
The tens of thousands of weary state school teachers who were required to work on through the dog-days of summer have finally flip-flopped off to the beach. But, unfortunately, many of the primary heads and Year 6 teachers were evidently in a less celebratory mood than usual because of frustrations over the new national curriculum tests for 11-year-olds.

The level - and range - of complaints is disappointing in view of the millions of pounds that the Government has invested in the design, distribution and marking of the tests, and the thousands of hours that School Curriculum and Assessment Authority officials have devoted to their painstaking preparations. SCAA set up a huge pilot exercise involving 325 schools and 8,000 children last year, consulted with teachers and later issued glossy booklets detailing the minutiae of the testing and posting arrangements.

It is therefore understandable that the authority should try to play down the significance of the protests, but clearly some of their best-laid plans have gang seriously a-gley. "Too little time allocated for the maths and English tests, an unacceptably easy science paper, highly ambiguous questions, suspect marking of the English papers (though most markers did their job diligently) and ill-thought-out test rules that allowed special needs pupils to outscore able classmates" are but a few of the more serious charges.

After this year's experience even staff who were agnostic on the teacher assessment v. external tests issue have veered sharply towards the former. It would be astonishing, however, if this Government, adept as it is at U-turns, were to ditch testing at 11. A future Labour Government is highly unlikely to contemplate such a change either - something that many schools which see these tests as disruptive and pointless will find hard to accept. Some larger primary schools have complained that their younger children had to do without PE and eat lunch in their classrooms for a fortnight because the hall was commandeered for the tests. Others have pointed out that teachers had to spend hours scrabbling around on their hands and knees filling in the computer forms that accompanied scripts. However, far more important than these inconveniences, in many heads' opinion, were the loss of self-esteem for pupils who found that their level best was only a level 2 or 3, and the fact that many children's grades did not coincide with either their teachers' assessment or their rating on alternative gauges such as the Cognitive Abilities Test (children who were four or five years apart in reading age achieved almost identical scores in the key stage 2 English comprehension test).

It is also true that the current six-level primary scale can offer no more than a vague characterisation of a child's understanding, skills and knowledge. Children awarded level 3 in maths, for example, could have scored as little as 15 or as much as 30. True, too, that the Government is expecting these tests to perform too many functions - charting cognitive development, diagnosing individual problems, reporting to parents, scrutinising schools and monitoring national standards. That, as Cambridge University's Alastair Pollitt has said, is rather like asking Concorde to double up as a hovercraft. Moreover, there is the real danger that schools will increasingly teach to the test in Year 6, particularly if the Government goes ahead with the publication of primary performance tables - although it would be well-advised not to do so until these key stage 2 statistics are clearly less unreliable. Nor can there yet be any question of using them as the basis for a future value-added exercise.

But despite all these problems and potential-disasters-in-the-making, some good may yet come from the key stage 2 tests. They will certainly concentrate the mind of any Year 6 teacher - or school - in danger of coasting, and they may induce some parents to take a closer interest in their children's progress (although it is, of course, likely that most help will be offered to those who need it least). And, judging by the key stage 1 experience, the Year 6 tests will become less of an encumbrance with each passing year. If we follow the path of New Zealand - the only other country where marked scripts are returned to schools - the number of complaints about shoddy marking is also likely to diminish as poor markers are weeded out and the remainder pay scrupulous attention to the job in hand, knowing that their work will be scrutinised.

If we are to reach that sunny upland, however, both SCAA and the Government will have to pay even more heed to teachers' views than they have done in the past. The fact that yet another Dearing review is under way into assessment suggests that there is a readiness to listen, but for the time being teachers are entitled to remain sceptical.

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