Tests that add their own value

9th May 1997 at 01:00
Now is the time when a section of the community can be distinguished by harrowed and distracted expressions: the supporters of football teams striving to win their leagues or, even more frantically, struggling to avoid relegation. These suffering ranks have now been swollen by teachers administering the key stage 2 tests.

It is difficult to think of anything - even the dreaded inspection process - that arouses such hostility, anxiety and disdain in the profession as the publication of their results in the league tables; these are regarded as completely missing the important issues, as futile and unjust. It is suggested they mislead parents, misrepresent and undervalue the work of teachers, detract from the success of small schools whose results are not published. Many believe tables will encourage restrictive "teaching to the tests", a narrowing curriculum focused on the core subjects, a concentration on children likely to achieve the crucial level 4 and even, in isolated cases, undue intervention by teachers in pupils' efforts.

There is a general insistence that the whole notion of publishing results must go. In some places, the critical clamour threatens to obscure any objective evaluation of the tests themselves.

However, I venture to suggest that schools would be seriously mistaken to confuse the tests (or SATs, as they are still popularly known) and their implications with the league tables issue. In their current form the tables are manifestly incapable of conveying any authentic sense of an order of achievement and merit. The SATs on the other hand, are crucially significant and should be treated very seriously.

They are maturing into well set, appropriately tuned, rigorous tests, that provide substantial information about pupils' attainment (achieved at a cost that individual schools could not possibly match). Their outcomes help to pinpoint teaching and learning needs in all the core subjects. The common assertion that the tests can be "taught to", that "short cuts" and ruses can be inculcated, leading to spurious success for children, is probably naive. The SATs, unlike their 11-plus predecessors, are too challenging in their demands, too sophisticated in their emphases on conceptual understanding, to be easily manipulated.

They oblige us to face up to certain uncomfortable possibilities: * Are the proportions of children nationally failing to reach level 4 unacceptably high?

* Will these children who, according to the evidence, cannot inferentially comprehend texts, find it impossible to cope with the secondary curriculum?

* Do at least some of the schools that are failing to get, for instance, 30 per cent of their Year 6 pupils to level 4 in reading and numeracy represent a serious cause for concern?

As national tests, the SATs are unique in that the individual scripts are returned to schools, enabling them to analyse each child's personal performance and to diagnose their strengths and weaknesses. The potential for enhancing pupils' learning is so remarkable that one wonders how long before a similar initiative is considered for GCSEs.

SATs cannot tell us whether children are attaining their potential, as distinct from making progress, nor provide valid league tables without authoritative "value- added" measures.

But they do provide for a worthwhile comparison of like with like. Where schools with similar types of pupils are organised into families, then the information provided by the test results and children's papers can help them work together to evaluate, plan and set targets. Kirklees, an authority pioneering this process, is finding that schools become more aware of what is possible in their particular circumstances, and are able to define more precisely what "high standards" means for them. Schools can work together to explore the strategies most likely to achieve them.

I think more areas will start grouping their schools in this way. It will mean that suitable targets can be set, suggesting a clearer picture of value-added. This would challenge ostensibly successful middle-class schools that are actually under-achieving, and identifying the real success achieved by many apparently low scoring schools.

They would encourage a long overdue debate between primary and secondary schools about what makes for effective teaching, and how to promote progression and continuity in pupils' learning The SATs should serve to remind us of just how much the curriculum has expanded and developed. A mere 20 years ago the HMI Survey of Primary Education found such scant evidence of work in science that it was impossible to report on. Hopefully schools will gain a more balanced perception of SATs and their potential, as they have with other educational developments, and come to use them to enhance their pupils' education.

How to make practical use of sats

Schools can use national tests for pupils' benefit by: * Careful analysis of outcomes fromyear to year, supplemented by more sophisticated formative assessment and by internal standardised testing in Year 4, half-way through key stage 2

* Use of the substantial body of data provided to inform curriculum planning, target setting, evaluation of best practice and the identification of areas of under-achievement

* Involvement with groups of like schools and reference to initiatives such as PIPS (Performance Indicators in Primary Schools)

* Comprehensive schemes of work that provide for coherence, continuity and progression in teaching and learning

* Provision for children to become competent readers at the earliest possible opportunity

Government should support schools by:

* The immediate dissemination, ofthe National Literacy and Numeracy Project frameworks

* Local authorities providing detailed information about comparative performance and forming families of like schools

* Deciding to remove two subjects at key stage 2 (design and technology and information technology) until Year 6 or until pupils' ability to handle text is guaranteed

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