In a consultation paper published this week, the Government acknowledges that, despite a decade of improving overall results, children's progress individually has been uneven and unequal. This admission is welcome and long overdue.
Pupils who have made the biggest strides are those given extra attention to help their schools to meet their assessment targets. As a result, many more pupils now reach expected levels in the 3Rs by the time they leave primary school and complete their period of compulsory education with five "good"
This is good news, but not good enough. As this week's GSCE league tables clearly show (page 26), well-intentioned targets have a habit of producing distortions. By focusing on averages, they tend to lead to weaker pupils being neglected while the bright ones are left unstretched. It remains to be seen whether the new GCSE target, with its emphasis on English and maths, will be any different.
At least the proposed progress tests will enable teachers to enter pupils for them when children are ready. The hope is that teachers will use the tests diagnostically to help shape pupils' future learning. Ministers also hope that by rewarding schools that do well in moving pupils up the levels and providing one-to-one tuition for those who struggle, children of all abilities will thrive.
The trouble is, as long as tests are linked to targets and tables, these potential gains are likely to be undermined by anxious staff who are teaching to the test. Indeed, there is a real danger that from the age of seven or eight upwards, children will be subjected to a barrage of uninspiring tests, leading to increased disaffection. We already pay a high price for under-achievement with a growing number of disillusioned teenagers on our streets, as our report on white working-class boys shows (TES magazine, page 14).
But teachers should not despair. The proposed tests are to be piloted before being rolled out across the country. There is still time to argue for a better assessment system than we have now. Cutting back on targets and abolishing crude league tables is the key.