World-class tests 'will not work';News;News amp; Opinion

5th November 1999 at 00:00
Advisers have attacked plans to stretch the brightest in inner cities, reports Karen Thornton.

THE GOVERNMENT'S plan for "world-class" maths tests to stretch the brightest pupils is doomed to failure, its own advisers have said.

The tests for pupils aged nine to 13 were announced earlier this year as part of the Excellence in Cities programme. They are aimed at boosting the status of inner-city schools by showing they can meet the needs of the most able.

But a working group asked to help formulate the tests said they ask the wrong questions of the wrong pupils. It also said the tests should be retitled, arguing that the term "world-class" will be mocked by schools.

The group, established by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, welcomed ministers' drive to meet the needs of talented pupils, and said the main thrust of the policy was good. However it called for major changes. The group recommended that ministers:

abandon their plan to use the Third International Maths and Science Study (TIMSS) - used to compare the performance of pupils in different countries - as a basis for the new tests;

change the ages at which the tests are taken from nine and 13 to 11 and 14;

rename the tests "merit and distinction" awards.

Tests at age nine are "far too early to allow any meaningful international comparisons", says the group's report. It also points out that TIMMS was developed to assess ordinary pupils, not exceptional ones. It also warns primary schools may not be able to help the bright nine-year-olds identified by the tests.

However ministers appear to have ignored the group's recommendations, which went to the QCA in September.

"The TIMSS project and its data will continue to be used as a key reference point," said a QCA spokesman this week. The QCA said the group had been asked to do some preliminary work and had made some helpful comments. But it had gone beyond its original brief.

World-class tests are a key part of the pound;350 million Excellence in Cities initiative, designed to boost standards in 450 comprehensive schools in six major cities. Extra coaching is promised for the 10 per cent of nine- and 13-year-olds who pass the new tests.

Ministers are also promoting world-class tests for 18-year-olds. But these, covering a range of subjects, were not dealt with by the working group.

The group's chairman, mathematician Dr Tony Gardiner from Birmingham University - an ex-president of the Mathematical Association - said: "If they pursue the policy in its current form, it won't work and it will do damage. It's a Kafkaesque mess."

The group was made up of two university lecturers and two serving teachers. One of the latter, Stephen Brierley - a maths teacher and assistant head of Canon Slade school, Bolton - said: "There needs to be careful consideration of how things could work in schools and what's going to happen to kids after they have done the tests. Schools already set test at 11 and 14. We don't want to impose extra burdens on them."

But the QCA spokesman said: "The initiative to develop world-class tests is new and innovative - naturally this will attract a range of views. That's why the QCA is setting up a teacher advisory group and a steering group to develop the tests. The universities of Leeds, Durham and Nottingham are all involved in management and development.

"We are confident that this blend of academic excellence and practical classroom knowledge will deliver robust tests to challenge the most able pupils."

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