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Tested by a moving target

IN what seems to be an annual complaint, HMI has reported once again that half of all secondary schools do not provide acceptable standards for their younger pupils. According to senior chief inspector Douglas Osler, "schools must ask themselves why it is that many pupils who perform well in P7 mark time or even regress in S1 and S2".

But it does not seem to make sense. Half of our pupils are doing badly in the first two years yet somehow by the time they reach S4 and beyond their results, according to the same reports, are better than ever.

There has been a 7 per cent increase since 1995 in the number of pupils receiving five or more Standard grades at level 4 or above. The Foundation level seems to have practically disappeared. Senior school passes, similarly, show a year by year improvement.

The fact is that there is no truly objective basis for these assertions. Progress in the 5-14 programme is assessed by internally marked tests and in the context of target-setting these are of questionable authority. The pressure, particularly on primary teachers, to meet targets can so often mean that a target set is a target met no matter what it takes to get pupils through the required national tests.

This then puts secondary schools, and particularly English and mathematics departments, in a dilemma. Either they go along with what their own assessments might suggest are inflated grades or, with Standard grades and Highers in mind, they form a different judgment and place pupils accordingly.

This can lead to the impression that pupils are doing less well in the first two years of secondary school when in fact a more realistic picture is being presented. When confronted with this problem HMI's response tends to be, "go with the primary grades".

This merely confirms the suspicion that what we are dealing with here is a political tool not an educational strategy. The imperative is to give the impression, whether it be true or not, that progress is being made year in year out.

If attainment and progress are to be such public issues then they must be measured in a more objective manner. Some authorities are using the same baseline tests to assess all pupils and create a more reliable attainment profile.

There is a danger in this, however, that these tests will be used to set pupils and to establish a predetermined judgment of their abilities with which they may well be stuck for the rest of their schooldays.

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