Don't fall for declining standards claim

27th September 1996 at 01:00
I realise that I may be accused of colluding in low or declining standards if I dare to question the contentions in your leader (TES, September 13) that a long-standing slide in numeracy standards is continuing and that reading standards may well have declined since the time the national curriculum and testing were introduced.

However, I must contest those two assertions - which were also given undue weight in the British Association's annual meeting which you reported. I do so because through such assertions the efforts of countless thousands of primary teachers are being needlessly and recklessly devalued.

Put simply, no one knows whether national standards have declined, improved or remained the same in any subject since the introduction of the national curriculum. There is no definitive data; there is no reasonably conclusive evidence either. Since 1988 there have been no national surveys of children's attainments in reading similar to the tests carried out from 1955 to 1977.

The national curriculum testing regime has not produced any evidence since it has proved unable to provide a consistent valid baseline at either age 7 or 11 against which comparisons can be made. Inspection has not yielded conclusive or even reasonably conclusive evidence either.

Assessments of standards made pre-1988 were by HM Inspectorate operating "hidden" partly-implicit criteria; recent assessments have been by independent inspection teams operating with open, though still ambiguous, criteria which are by no means the same as those applied by their HMI predecessors.

We simply do not know. Let us all admit it - from the Department for Education and Employment to local authorities and research agencies. It's scandalous that we don't have adequate evidence, but we don't. All of us who have been involved in these agencies are to blame; teachers and schools are, however, exempt from criticism - on this score at least!

We need to prevent the perennially-manufactured crises of confidence in primary school standards. I agree with Jim Campbell that we need urgently to re-establish the Assessment of Performance Unit, but with its original brief - to assess performance over time across several subjects or areas - not just limited to the so-called "basic skills".

COLIN RICHARDS Visiting professor of education School of Education University of Leicester

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