READING tests for 11-year-olds have become easier in the past two years and rising scores could be disguising a fall in standards, according to new research.
The revelation will cast doubt on the Government's claim that its national literacy strategy has sent primary reading standards soaring.
The Cambridge University research is particularly damning for the literacy strategy because the rise in 11-year-olds' English scores is almost entirely accounted for by improvements in reading test performance; by contrast writing scores are causing increasing concern (see box right).
Key stage 2 English scores have improved sharply since 1998. Three-quarters of children reached the expected level in 2000, well on course for the 2002 target of 80 per cent. Education Secretary David Blunkett and his ministers have said they will resign if the target is not met.
But an analysis of the reading tests by Mary Hilton, a senior lecturer at Homerton College, Cambridge, has shown the papers radically changed between 1998 and 2000.
The number of questions where children are simply asked to retrieve information from the text has increased, while the number requiring pupils to use what the researchers call higher-order reading skills, such as inference and deduction, has markedly decreased (see box above). Ms Hilton said: "These changes have made the reading tests progressively easier. There could well be a current fall in standards as the national literacy approach to the teaching of English in primary schools is bolstered by such dubious test reliability.
"Many teachers are concerned about the imposition of the new mechanical and literal approach to the teaching of reading. This leads away from meaningful experiences with literature where children learn to read with understanding."
Research by theQualifications and Curriculum Authority has shown that nearly 90 per cent of British 10-year-olds can answer questions where the answer can be found in the text, but find higher-order tasks - such as responding to the author's use of imagery - far more difficult.
The Homerton study, to be published in two weeks time in Reading, Language and Literacy, the journal of the United Kingdom Reading Association, says there were enough easy questions in the 2000 test for pupils to reach the target standard, level 4, without having to demonstrate any powers of inference or deduction whatsoever.
The Government reacted angrily to the claim that test scores could be masking a fall in standards.
A Department for Education and Employment spokesman said: "This is a ridiculous claim which we wholeheartedly reject. Reading was taught badly in too many primary schools before the literacy hour and its teaching has greatly improved. Teachers can see improvements day-to-day in pupils' performance in the 3Rs."
A spokesman for the QCA said Ms Hilton's assumptions were false. "This research assumes that inference questions are always more difficult than questions about using textual evidence. This is patently wrong."
The Rose inquiry in 1999, set up in response to earlier allegations that the tests were becoming easier, concluded that the tests were just as hard as in previous years.
Ministers' proposals to set even more demanding targets for key stage 2 maths and English in 2004 have been rejected by the National Association of Head Teachers. It claims it is unfair that schools' scores include zero scores for absent pupils and the scores of children with special needs.
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