Ministers 'ran away' from truth

16th September 2005 at 01:00
TES forces Government to confess it has not studied the potential damage caused by KS2 tests. Warwick Mansell reports.

The Government has admitted it has never carried out research into whether high-stakes testing of 11-year-olds could have damaging side-effects for teachers and their pupils.

The confession, obtained by The TES in response to a request under the Freedom of Information Act, comes despite advice in an influential report four years ago that ministers should investigate the issue.

Instead, the Department for Education and Skills referred to an independent research review.

This highlighted a string of alleged negative effects of the tests, including evidence that they demotivate less academic pupils.

The response comes as six teaching unions are campaigning for a review of the tests.

The unions say the tests narrow the curriculum and do not help pupils improve.

John Bangs, National Union of Teachers' head of education, said: "It is extraordinary that, faced with the evidence of the impact of high-stakes testing on children's confidence, teachers' motivation and morale and on the curriculum, the Government has not even investigated this issue.

"The reason ministers have not done so is that they know what the answer is. They are running away from the obvious."

The DfES was asked how it had responded to a recommendation in the second of three evaluation reports for the Government on the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategy, published in 2001.

The report, Watching and Learning 2 by academics at the University of Toronto, highlighted widespread concerns about the time Year 6 staff spent preparing pupils for the key stage 2 tests.

It said: "DfES might wish to evaluate, on an ongoing basis, the intended and unintended effects of the use of national targets and high-stakes KS2 tests.

This might include, for instance, a much more systematic examination than we can undertake on the extent to which teachers in Year 6 focus on test preparation and teaching to the test, and what this really means."

The department admitted that it had not evaluated the effect of national targets and tests at KS2, or commissioned research into how much test preparation teachers undertake.

"However, we have considered and continue to take a close interest in independent research carried out on these issues," it said.

The DfES referred to a 2002 study by the Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Co-ordinating Centre, which investigated effects of the tests on pupil motivation.

This research, based on a review of 19 studies which addressed the question, found that the tests had divided pupils, with high achievers feeling good about themselves and low-achievers feeling bad. Previously, there had been no correlation between pupils' self-esteem and their achievement levels.

The department said it did not emphasise "teaching to the test". It said:

"Teaching the curriculum, combined with sensible preparation for the tests to allow children to perform at their best, is the most effective strategy for promoting learning."

The six unions complained that the tests lead to at least a third of the spring term being devoted to preparation.

Some schools spent 70 per cent of teaching time on English and maths, to the detriment of other subjects.

The DfES said it remained committed to KS2 tests.

* warwick.mansell@tes.co.uk

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