Is it a bike?
The original specification for the tests by the Task Group on Assessment and Testing seemed deceptively clear back in 1987. Tests would be drawn up so that achievement of a given level at each key stage would reflect what the national curriculum expected of the average pupil at that age. The fun started when this theoretical framework began to be translated into lists of things pupils should be expected to know, understand and do at each level. Even if there is agreement on what these should be, specifying them poses certain technical difficulties. What precisely does it mean to "know" or "understand" something? Even in simple criteria like "can add two numbers", is 2-plus-8 as hard as 9-plus-8?
Of course there was not always agreement; nor any guarantee that the subject groups who did this work initially got it right. Their educated guesses were informed by what children were expected to be able to do at various ages and stages under the curriculum as it then was. rather than the new and much broader 10-subject national curriculum.
The subject groups might also have been influenced by what children of similar ages throughout the educated world were capable of mastering. The one member who spoke up strongly for such an approach - Professor Sig Prais - resigned from the maths group in protest at its failure to emphasise the basics or to take notice of the way British children appeared to be falling behind in international league tables.
Echoes of that debate were heard again recently. It was the report from Professor Prais's National Institute of Economic and Social Research that English pupils were two years behind their German and Swiss counterparts on arithmetic which upstaged last week's national curriculum results.
Professor Prais had been invited back as an adviser to the School Examinations and Assessment Council, the body which - after the National Curriculum Council and the Department for Education had given their own twist to working group and TGAT proposals - began devising ways of testing how far children had learnt what was being prescribed (and represcribed) for them.
Unfortunately children are not fitted with dipsticks to register what they have taken in, and this has to be inferred from their answers to questions. But as the Assessment of Performance Unit surveys established, apparent abilities can vary dramatically according to how you pose the question. Children who had little difficulty dividing 400 by four floundered badly when asked for Boycott's batting average over four innings with a total score of 400 runs. It remains a moot point, therefore, how well the tests taken last year - particularly the relatively untried tests for 11-year-olds - reflect the expectations of the national curriculum and its levels.
Notwithstanding any doubts about the validity of these tests, they have now been exalted by the Government to the status of national standards, though with somewhat elastic properties. The levels at which seven and 11-year-olds are said to have "reached the national standards" are level 2 and 4 as TGAT proposed. For 14-year-olds the task group set the average at the threshold between levels 5 and 6. The Government has now effectively downrated that by setting the standard at level 5 - just one level above that expected for 11-year-olds.
National figures such as these provide a context of a kind for parents and managers to set school performance against, though their usefulness is vitiated by doubts about their accuracy. But even if they are spot on these results tell us little or nothing about where schools or the national curriculum are succeeding or failing, what children can and cannot do or whether it would be better to learn about less more thoroughly in the early stages as our international competitors seem to do. They will not even serve as a reliable baseline for comparisons with future years unless the curriculum and the tests are to remain unchanged. Something like an APU survey is needed once again to tell us whether the national curriculum has made things better or worse.