Keeping up with the Mary Joneses

16th January 2004 at 00:00
A weaker reader reached level 4 at Ken Round's school. By Year 7 she was in a special needs group

Official findings that an apparent leap in 11-year-olds' reading scores between 1996 and 2000 were to some extent "illusory" (see TES, December 19) probably came as no surprise to the thousands of primary teachers involved with the national tests from the start.

Most could see that the reading test lacked consistency year on year. Many wondered how we were going to change the normal distribution curve so that more than 80 per cent of 11-year-olds would achieve the "expected level" rather than the 66 per cent that the curve consistently shows.

But in schools we patted ourselves on the back for getting Mary Jones to level 4 when we knew that her abilities didn't really justify it.

As headteacher of a junior school between 1995 and 2001, I conducted my own five-year study of our national test results and made systematic use of the Standardised Score Conversion Tables sent to all schools.

The correlation between standardised score and national curriculum level is very easy to identify and in 1997, when my study started, level 4 pupils had scores of 95 to 96 and above. Level 5 came in with a score of about 112. Tracking these results clearly helped us to focus on the pupils that we could move from level 3 to 4 and also from level 4 to 5. This is a very efficient and accurate measure for predicting performance and a hugely useful tool for intervention and target- setting. Such systems are widespread and second nature to schools now.

My analysis revealed that the threshold for level 4 achievement in reading became progressively lower from 1997 to 2001, culminating with Mary getting a level 4 reading grade with a standardised score of 83. In real life this amounted to very good reading results for the school, a pat on the back for staff and delight for Mary and her parents.

Until she transferred to secondary school. Then, distress for all of them as Mary went into the special needs groups for English and maths (where she had been for much of her time with us).

Where do we go from here? Since the national curriculum is here to stay, experiment with it, bend it, stretch it, manipulate it and remember the distant past, when we found out about how children learn best. Create a curriculum that inspires, excites and motivates pupils. One that gives them experiences that are relevant to their lives, which give them the chance for extended working and a chance to apply their skills.

Real, meaningful success boosts confidence and self-esteem and invariably influences performance across the board. This is the key to improved standards that are secure and lasting, and - perhaps more important in the short term - acknowledges skills and knowledge outside the things the Government thinks it can neatly and reliably measure.

Ken Round is outdoor education adviser, Lincolnshire

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