Cat's whiskers

10th October 2003 at 01:00
Cognitive abilities tests can help schools to achieve record results - and assist under-achievers, too. Susannah Kirkman reports

How can schools rescue disaffected pupils, spot under-achievers, measure what they have added to children's attainment and boost their exam results? CATs (cognitive abilities tests) could be part of the answer, as schools are using the test results in increasingly sophisticated ways.

Dr Steve Strand of nferNelson trains teachers in using CATs effectively. He says that the way schools do this varies enormously, but if the results are analysed thoroughly extra help can be targeted more accurately at pupils who need it most.

At Whitburn Academy in West Lothian, CAT scores in Year 7 are compared with pupils' academic records. This identifies under-achievers, who benefit from counselling and a range of teaching strategies.

"We find that pupils get absorbed and interested in the test puzzles and forget that they don't want to shine," said Eric Gillies, the school's deputy rector. Whitburn Academy also picks out students whose CAT scores predict they will be on the border of a credit and a general pass in the Scottish Standard Grade exams; these pupils are offered mentors. As a result, the school's results at Standard Grade have improved greatly.

Careful analysis of CAT results at Earlsheaton High School Technology College in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire led to the discovery of a startling link between disaffection with school and disparate CAT scores. Staff noticed that disruptive pupils often had a high score in the non-verbal reasoning test but a far lower score in verbal reasoning.

"The problem wasn't that these children were unintelligent, but that their verbal ability couldn't keep up with their non-verbal skills," says Greg Plenty, the assistant head teacher. "I'm sure that highlighting these pupils and providing a range of approaches in lessons has helped to keep them on the straight and narrow. Our results have also gone through the roof this year." The number of Earlsheaton pupils gaining five or more GCSEs at grade C or above rose by 13 per cent this summer.

Earlsheaton, like Whitburn Academy, swings into action with the Year 7 CAT scores, providing mentors for pupils whose CAT scores are far better than their key stage 2 SATs results would indicate. For Greg Plenty, one of the main benefits of CATs is that they raise expectations: "The test focuses on the pupil. The GCSE predictions derived from the CAT scores don't measure social circumstances, so it makes no difference whether students come from leafy suburbs or run-down council estates."

However, some critics say that CAT predictions are too low. The response of Redhill School in Nottingham has been to use the GCSE grade predicted by the CAT score in Year 9 as a guide in agreeing challenging targets with each pupil. The final target is based partly on the pupil's level of motivation and the teacher's knowledge of the student.

"We are confident that the CAT data provides objective evidence about a pupil's potential, but teachers like to take evidence of past performance into account when they are negotiating targets," explains David Mangan, the school's data manager.

By setting targets, offering extra support to under-achievers and being aware of pupils' learning styles, Redhill has produced its best-ever GCSE results. This year, 50 per cent of pupils achieved A* to C, up from 38 per cent in 1997.

Redhill, like Earlsheaton, has noticed a link between pupils on the verge of exclusion and divergent scores in verbal and non-verbal reasoning tests.

Offering specific support and involving parents in target-setting meant that the behaviour of most of these students significantly improved and they achieved their GCSE goals. Wendy Sharp, deputy head at Redhill, believes that the CAT "chances" graph, showing the percentages of pupils with the same CAT score who achieve different GCSE grades, is particularly powerful in setting targets for pupils.

"It enables all parties to realise that their CAT scores don't lock them into an inevitable outcome," she says. The "chances" graph for GCSE geography, for instance, shows that while 33 per cent of pupils with a CAT score of 100 are likely to receive a C, 13 per cent will achieve a B and 6 per cent an A or above.

Redhill staff can see instantly what they have added to a pupil's achievement, as a software programme devised by the data manager flags-up whether students have achieved better grades than expected.

CATs have been useful in detecting ethnic under-achievement at Burntwood school for girls, a highly successful secondary in Wandsworth, London.

Here, staff noticed that while the proportion of able Afro-Caribbean girls was increasing, these pupils were under-represented in the school's programme for students of marked aptitude. The school is now distributing CAT results to all class teachers to help them identify and support pupils on the programme.

When staff at Alderman Smith school in Nuneaton, Warwickshire analysed pupils' CAT profiles, they discovered that boys were significantly underachieving at key stages 3 and 4 and GCSE. Girls were outperforming them, but the CAT results showed that the boys had similar verbal reasoning skills. Teachers are now giving boys extra support in literacy, particularly in extended writing, as so much of the national curriculum focuses on success in this area.

In a ground-breaking development, the school has also used an analysis of CAT scores to introduce some setting based on pupils' learning styles. The students with high non-verbal scores and low verbal reasoning marks generally benefit most from active learning, involving movement and visual perception. In science, for instance, these pupils used movement to demonstrate how the brain functions. After a few weeks of practical work , the teacher began to build in verbal and literacy skills through discussion and word maps.

The latest development for CATs is to introduce testing for 15- to 18-year-olds. NferNelson has produced two new assessment levels for this age group. Dr Strand believes the tests will help post-16 students to make exam choices and will enable teachers to track pupils' progress for their whole school careers.

Getting the Best from CAT: a Practical Guide for Secondary Schools by Dr Steve Strand is published by nferNelson, pound;35.

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