Tests that couldn't be ducked

14th March 1997 at 00:00
The Bandaged Thumb Award for noting the obvious has been withheld this year. Not even the most adventurous bookmaker was prepared to offer odds against the Scottish Office homing in on testing in secondary schools. The Government has been signalling for some time that testing in the first two years of secondary school should be undertaken sooner rather than later, but time has run out, hastened on its way by those cheery little statistics dropped by Michael Forsyth that secondary testing rates for reading clocked in at 9 per cent, writing 5 per cent and maths 8 per cent.

Secondary schools may have learnt how to "duck and cover" too well when S1 and S2 testing alarms have sounded over the past few years. Certainly they have sounded. The 5-14 structures for English and mathematics have had testing embedded within them for secondary schools since 1994, and HMIs have lost few opportunities to recommend in the strongest terms available to them to get started. Yet while primaries have moved forwards, in a ragged line perhaps but moved, the secondaries have loitered in the traps. To paraphrase a little, they have been like Major Major in Catch-22. Prepared to fill in reports about pupils all day long, but ready to jump out of the office window when asked to test them.

No more. Missile Green, Improving Achievements in Scottish Schools, had more coded messages taking for granted widespread use of testing than the wartime Enigma system could ever cope with, including reviewing national test data in primaries that might alter attainment levels A-E. Its target area was clear. Packing more punch, Missile White, Raising the Standard, is quite specific. The Government proposes (subject to voter disposal) that national tests are to be made available in all schools in the first two years of secondary, as from 1998. The consultation paper goes for gold. "Ministers . . . intend to introduce compulsory tests in both S1 and S2." Bull's-eye.

Interchange No 37, Implementing 5-14 in Secondary Schools recorded a secondary headteacher interview suggesting that a benefit of 5-14 would be secondary awareness of what the primary school curriculum is about, and that there was an opportunity "to get some rigour, structure and progression into S1 and S2". Testing can be seen as a part of this. The grapevine has whispered loudly to secondary colleagues of what reptiles lurk in the greenery of the Garden of Testing Delights. The primary face workers have found out the hard way. Writing tests tax most. And correcting writing tests mega-taxes most of all. Those secondary colleagues in search of intellectual exercise, in the sense of gymnastics, will find it there.

A year or two back, when I corrected a large group of level C tests, I found that the only way to make any progress was to stick like glue to the criteria provided. I have a great deal of admiration for the nameless compilers of these criteria which have since been amended and refined. There is a definite pattern within them. Decode the pattern and the correction models are set. You've guessed it. It all takes time. I recommend retreat to a soundproofed attic, and provision of unlimited supplies of hot coffee.

The consultation paper's little throwaway lines spell the knell for some secondary cherished beliefs and habits. The 5-14 programme has no place for the fresh start in English and mathematics, and the paper makes this clear. Liaison will never be the same again when the standardised information form is introduced. There is light in the gloom, though. Whole-class teaching surely must mean whole-class testing, particularly when setting has been put into place.

While these are testing times, a note of caution. Secondary colleagues should keep in mind St Felix, mentioned in the Golden Legend, a schoolmaster and a strict one, who stuck by the rules, followed the criteria. The dark downside? When his turn came for martyrdom, he was turned over to his pupils. Their response was to stab him with their styluses. Careful now.

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