Boy-friendly tests unfair, say heads

25th May 2001 at 01:00
Teachers said the KS2 reading Sats were better suited to boys. Do examiners adopt a bias towards a particular sex?

Were bite-sized chunks of text about whales suitable for girls? Julie Henry on the reading row

NATIONAL curriculum reading tests sat by 600,000 11-year-olds last week were biased towards boys, headteachers say.

Labour is desperate to raise the academic performance of boys as it tries to reach its targets for literacy and numeracy next year. Last year, 86 per cent of girls reached the expected level in reading compared with 80 per cent of boys.

Teachers say this year's fact-filled, non-fiction text in magazine format, chopped into bite-sized chunks, was better suited to boys.

Their criticisms echo those made two years ago when a dramatic jump in the scores of boys was put down to a "biased" reading test about spiders, illustrated with cartoons.

The number of boys reaching the expected level for their age group rose by 11 percentage points. Girls made a three-point gain but remained ahead.

Last week's key stage 2 English paper consisted of non-fiction text about saving the whale. It was laid out in a 13-page mock-up magazine, with an editor's introduction and a double-page spread containing facts about the blue whale.

Research by booksellers and a survey of more than 2,000 primary children by the Hornchurch Curriculum Centre has shown that boys prefer magazines, comics and non-fiction to the stories and novels beloved of girls.

Peter Downes, former secondary head and member of the Rose inquiry into test standards, said: "We are clearly moving away from the literary gene, which boys do not seem to deal with as well."

Barry Dawson, chairman of the National Primary Heads Association, described this year's test as "undoubtedly boy-biased".

"There was no narrative and plenty of factual questions. With the concentration on boys lagging behind, one must ask why this style of test was chosen."

Elaine Millard, director of literacy research at Sheffield University, said the national literacy strategy and national year of reading had broadened the concept of reading. Tests in the past failed to consider boys' different tastes in reading matter.

"We are redefining what reading is. It is not the case that boys did not know how to read, they just did not read the texts that were most commonly presented to them in school.

"The test is about animals which appeal across gender. If it had been about motorbikes it might have been considered to be biased."

Tim Cornford, head of the assessment division at the QCA, said: "National curriculum tests have to assess a wide range of achievement - the KS2 tests cover three different levels of ability. They must be fair to both girls and boys. All the pre-test evidence we have is that this year's tests are fair on all these counts."

A Department for Education and Employment spokeswoman said this year's test was developed to criteria endorsed by the independent Rose inquiry two years ago. "One of the criteria for test development is that it should be fair to and appeal to boys and girls."

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