Can you be stretched without being warped? Former clients of the Inquisition will obviously have a view, but it is also a question that confronts primary teachers annually as they and their pupils are put on the rack of England's testing regime. Is the slog to push pupils through Sats at KS2 a meaningful effort or does it distort the purpose of education, exaggerate pupil performance and extinguish any enthusiasm children have for learning?
Many teachers firmly believe that too much emphasis on revision in the final year of primary school is damaging. Last year, when it came to science, the experts agreed. They suspected that the science exams were not a good indicator of later performance and that cramming for them squeezed the life out of the subject. So external testing for science was scrapped in favour of teacher assessment, although sample testing of a few pupils remained to calibrate performance.
Now the results of that sample are out, the figures are stark and the conclusions are as clear as the sea around a BP oil well. According to the sample, level 4 science scores dropped 8 per cent and level 5s plummeted by around a third. It also found that, compared to the science sample, informal teacher assessment was a poor predictor of actual pupil progress (page 4).
Ah ha! say some. This proves that teaching to the test exaggerates pupil performance. Strip away the pressure to jump through Government hoops and the true level of pupil achievement becomes apparent. Nonsense, say others. It proves that if you take away the external pressure to perform, schools and pupils do not. The scores in maths and English, which were tested, held up. Which only goes to show, retort yet others, that testing a couple of core subjects warps the curriculum to the disadvantage of the rest. Better not to test at all. Or to test the lot? Picking through chicken entrails would probably give a clearer prognosis.
Can any sense be made of this? It is a test sample. It is only one year's results. It would be unwise to read too much into them. Unfortunately, the evidence from Wales, which scrapped external testing a few years ago, doesn't shed much light on the issue either. Its teacher-assessed scores at KS2 match or slightly exceed England's results. But Welsh inspectors warned in an official report last month that those assessments were often inaccurate and unreliable. Comparing attainment in the two countries at primary level is therefore difficult, if not impossible.
Clearly, an over reliance on testing to the exclusion of learning can confuse the measurement of education with its purpose. On the other hand, no test exists that cannot be taught to, while teacher assessment seems to be a questionable substitute. The most troubling aspect of the science sample was the collapse of scores at level 5. Could it be that teachers, freed from external monitoring, are naturally tempted to confuse potential with achievement, and that pupils, if not pushed, will not do their best?
Gerard Kelly, Editor E email@example.com.