Warnings ignored over 'flawed' primary tests

5th April 2013 at 01:00
Year 6 will take the exams this summer despite advisers' concerns

The government is implementing controversial primary school grammar tests despite its own independent advisers warning that they will fail to properly assess children or improve their writing, TES has learned.

Experts consulted by the Department for Education described the tests, which will be taken by 500,000 Year 6 students this summer, as "really flawed" exams that ignore academic research on the best ways to teach grammar.

Debra Myhill, a professor of education at the University of Exeter, and Ruth Miskin, an expert on phonics and member of the national curriculum review team, were among experts who raised concerns about the spelling and grammar (Spag) tests when consulted by the government.

They are concerned that the tests do not ask students to use grammar in context, meaning they will not be able to apply rules more generally. "I did a very detailed analysis of the test and I had major reservations about it," Professor Myhill told TES. "I think it's a really flawed test."

The NUT this week passed a motion at its annual conference calling for a boycott of the Spag test and the phonics check for six-year-olds. In 2010, around a quarter of primary schools boycotted Sats for 11-year-olds in a campaign involving the NUT and heads' union the NAHT.

"The grammar test is totally decontextualised; it just asks children to do particular things, such as identifying a noun," Professor Myhill said. "But 50 years of research has consistently shown that there is no relationship between doing that kind of work and what pupils do in their writing.

"I think children will do better in the test than they are able to in their writing because it isolates the skills so that children only have to think about one thing at a time."

Ms Miskin said she also told the government that testing children on grammar "out of context" was the wrong thing to do. "What I was concerned about was (that) it would result in poor teaching, with children doing a lot of grammar tests and grammar exercises, which I'm really against," she told TES.

Professor Myhill and Ms Miskin, along with Janet Brennan, also a member of the English national curriculum review team, were consulted by the Standards and Testing Agency (STA) as part of its technical report on the development of the tests.

The report, published by the DfE last month, acknowledges that concerns were raised but fails to give details or reflect their seriousness. "On balance, the evidence from the independent experts gives STA sufficient confidence that the test is assessing English grammar, punctuation and spelling appropriately," the report said.

The introduction of the Spag tests follows a major review of key stage 2 assessment, led by Lord Bew and instigated by education secretary Michael Gove. It recommended replacing the writing test with teacher assessment and introducing a new test of essential writing skills, with externally marked tests of spelling, punctuation, grammar and vocabulary.

Heads' union the NAHT has previously raised concerns that the Spag test will become a high-stakes accountability measure that will narrow the curriculum and encourage teaching to the test. Responding to the latest criticisms, Russell Hobby, the union's general secretary, said the government should stop "over-committing itself before the evidence is in".

"Common sense says you look at grammar and creativity together, and to raise one technical skill within that is to distort outcomes," he added. "Nobody would be upset if the government hadn't introduced the Spag test; nobody is out there saying: `You must do it.' They are hoisting themselves by their own petard."

At the NUT conference in Liverpool, teachers raised concerns about reforms to the primary curriculum and assessment regime. Christine Blower, the union's general secretary, said the Spag tests would "leave many children feeling a failure".

But a DfE spokeswoman said it was "vital" that students left primary school being able to spell, punctuate and use correct grammar. "That is why we are introducing this new test - over the past decade too little attention has been paid to these basic writing skills," she said.

"The new test is being introduced following the recommendations of the independent Bew review panel, which consisted of highly respected heads, teachers and experts. They were clear that the test should include questions that had a clear right or wrong answer."

Photo credit: Alamy

Original headline: Ministers ignore expert warnings over `flawed' primary grammar tests

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