Tests: what are they good for?

1st November 2002 at 00:00
As research has shown, high-stakes testing has three undesirable side-effects: grade inflation, curriculum distortion and reduced pupil motivation. So more or higher targets do not guarantee children read, write or calculate better. The weird thing about the key stage 2 national tests is that, although children are put under a great deal of pressure, the tests are only really high-stakes for schools. They must do well in league tables and targets. But, unlike the 11-plus or A-levels, they do not determine anyone's academic future. In fact, the results are scorned by many secondary schools which re-test their Year 7s on arrival. With most at level 4, what do individual scores really mean anyway?

Nevertheless, today's TES survey of 500 Year 6 teachers reveals that one in seven primary schools starts revising for these tests in the autumn term, some as early as September. Not surprisingly, teachers from those schools are more likely to think too much time is spent on this activity. The survey also shows that teacher confidence remains low in the practical and creative subjects, such as art, music and technology.

Many establishments - including those highlighted in the Office for Standards in Education's report, The curriculum in successful primary schools - have found that a richer offering actually boosts test results. As Ted Wragg says (page 4), there is nothing wrong with tests when they inform teaching and learning; "it is the sheer weight of assessment, at the expense of learning, that is wrong".

It is also interesting that teachers have become more confident in their maths teaching than in English. Literacy confidence has remained steady at 80 per cent, while maths soared by nearly a fifth to 85 per cent in the survey. There is now a great deal of highly structured support available from the government for teaching both subjects. In a concrete subject such as maths, this could be expected to boost confidence in an area where many teachers were weak. But with English it could cut both ways. Literacy teaching was always very personal, and too many instructions could undermine confidence as well as support it.

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