Testing time for teachers

Gerald Haigh

The national curriculum will be left alone for the next five years. But, as Gerald Haigh reports, more work is needed on assessment. All kinds of assessment, including national curriculum tests, evoke a kind of love-hate response. Teachers know measurement can produce useful information, but they worry about how and by whom the information will be used. And there is always a feeling that assessment uses up precious time and money while not, in itself, making children perform any better.

Given that the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority spends two-thirds of its budget (Pounds 34.4 million, including Pounds 18.6 million on external marking) on testing, everyone wants to be certain that there will eventually be tangible results. SCAA points out that it has commissioned independent comprehensive evaluations of the tests at the three key stages from Bath University, the National Foundation for Educational Research, and Exeter University respectively. These evaluations will inform both short-term "fixes" and the long-term review of national curriculum assessment.

SCAA is also engaged in a two-year review of fundamental issues surrounding assessment and testing. These include the relationship between tests and teacher assessment, the impact of statutory testing on the curriculum, and how test results are used by teachers. Interim findings of the review will be reported to the Secretary of State by the end of this year, so proposals can go to schools for consultation early in 1996.

Despite many doubts, and a welter of complaints about the key stage 2 and 3 tests, it does appear that the profession has accepted the logic that if we are to have a national curriculum, we must also have national assessment. David Hawker, the SCAA official with responsibility for statutory assessment, says: "Arguments and concerns tend to be of a more detailed nature."

What constitutes detail, of course, depends on your point of view. Those heads and teachers who spent many hours at the end of last term perusing and analysing returned papers and adding to the considerable number of worried letters which SCAA has received may feel Mr Hawker understates their concern.

However, once the diplomatic preface is out of the way, it becomes clear that SCAA is taking criticisms seriously. "It does take some time to get all the tests and admin arrangements right," says Mr Hawker. "And inevitably there will be things that need improving. We welcome feedback from schools, and we are grateful that so many of them have taken the trouble to write to us."

One secondary school in every seven appealed against the marking of key stage 3 English. There were fewer appeals at key stage 2, but critics suggest this is not because primary teachers were happier with the results but because they do not share their secondary colleagues' long experience of making appeals within the public exam system.

But SCAA will be going beyond its post bag and using its considerable contacts with school and inspectors to look at this year's exams. The problem is that because the regulations for next year's tests had to be published in August, there were limits to the changes that could be made for 1996. Even so, some of the teachers' worries are being addressed.

Key Stage 1

The saving grace this year has been the provision of supply cover, which went a long way towards easing the worries of hard-pressed infant teachers.

Because the aim now is to confirm the long-term stability of the key stage 1 tests, very few changes are proposed for next year. The reading comprehension test at level 2, which was piloted alongside the compulsory reading task this year, will continue to be optional next year.

Key Stage 2

Preparation for external examinations, including question and topic-spotting, has long been a respectable part of secondary school life. It is not, though, a familiar activity in primary schools, and SCAA believes that at least part of the problem with last term's key stage 2 tests was due to this clash of cultures. At what point, for instance, does careful preparation for a test become professionally unacceptable?

One of the most startling complaints about this year's tests was to do with cheating. Children, it was alleged, had been given practice exercises which were suspiciously like the real ones waiting in the head's office. SCAA's response is that while there was some cheating, there was much less than was alleged.

Martin Ripley, senior manager in SCAA's assessment team, says there were very few proven cases of actual cheating. He suggests that the problem lay partly in "an ambiguity in teachers' minds about what is cheating and what is not. When you ask them for examples, it turns out that what the school down the road actually did was perfectly sound examination preparation - for example, giving a practice question that 'might come up' - something that's possibly alien to many Year 6 teachers."

There is, he acknowledges, great anxiety among primary teachers about the notion of revision - a word that carries a baggage of images centred on sterile "swotting up". Betty Kerr, head of Crawley Ridge junior school, in Camberley, Surrey, probably speaks for many primary teachers when she suggests that: "Primary teachers don't want to start teaching young children test techniques. We shouldn't enter the game of trying to beat the test when our aims are to do with broad and balanced education."

Mr Ripley, though, feels there is room within standard primary practice for effective revision and that it need not be a dreary business. "If it's done well, it reflects the sort of quizzes and reinforcement of learning that goes on in primary schools all the time," he says.

SCAA hopes the issue will settle down as key stage 2 teachers become more at home with testing. All the same, according to Mr Hawker: "We'll be tightening up the guidance for next year, making much clearer what can and cannot be done."

Another of the worries about this year's tests was the length of time given for the maths papers, and the way the graded structure discouraged less able pupils. SCAA's response, explained Mr Ripley, is that it is entirely valid to test maths by setting a series of questions of increasing difficulty in the expection that few, if any, children will reach the end. The test was extensively pre-tested, and he claimed that teachers were, in the end, satisfied with the levels that were awarded.

Comparing maths with science, he explained: "Maths is much more hierarchical and so long as we have the grading right, and have done extensive pre-testing, and if children keep on task, they should, within the time available, reach their ceiling. To give them another hour is not going to result in their picking up any more marks. That's a feature of the maths test that we want to continue. We intend to explain it more fully to teachers so that they can assure the children that they are not expected to gallop all the way through the paper."

Nevertheless, some criticism seems to have been acknowledged in that next year's test, while being no easier in general, will have more "comfort" questions at the start. "We're looking for four to six questions at the beginning that 90 per cent of the children can get right," says Mr Ripley.

The other major change to the maths test is that instead of both papers having some calculator questions, there will next year be two papers, of equal status - one where calculators are allowed and one where they are banned.

This will reassure those teachers who not only found the "mixed" papers difficult to administer, but also felt that in the school down the road, children might have been using calculators in tests when they should not.

Another effect of the separation, suggests Mr Hawker, is to signal SCAA's equal commitment to both sets of skills. "Some people have said we shouldn't have calculators at all, but we don't agree with that. We believe that children should he able to use them properly. But it's equally important that they should learn to operate basic arithmetical processes without a calculator. "

In English, the major change is that where this year's paper covered levels 3-6, next year's will cover levels 3-5 and there will be a separate extension paper for level 6, in line with practice in maths and science. This may go some way towards meeting the concern that some able children who might have reached level 6 this year were held back by spending too long on less demanding parts of the test.

The key stage 2 science test will have no structural changes, although SCAA accepts the criticism that it was rather too easy this year for pupils to reach level 5. Mr Hawker explains: "There were particular difficulties in setting questions at this level in science this year, arising from the decision to assess only content common to both old and new orders. We're working hard to ensure that the standard of performance required for the award of level 5 in 1996 is brought into line with the revised curriculum."

Mr Ripley is keen to refute what he believes to be a common misunderstanding among teachers - "that the distribution of levels will look the same across subjects; that if 80 per cent have level 4 in maths, then the same number should have level 4 science."

This, he says, overlooks the fact that the tests are not norm-referenced but criterion-referenced - and the criterion is the national curriculum. "So if particular subjects and aspects of subjects are weakly taught then the profiles will develop differently."

Key Stage 3

The major worry here was from teachers who believed the English test to have been inconsistently and sometimes ineptly marked. One secondary school in seven appealed to SCAA on the grounds that the mark scheme had been poorly applied, and others returned tests because of clerical errors.

"This is the first time we've done external marking," says Mr Hawker. "And apart from the English situation, it has gone remarkably well. It was a massive operation set up in a very short space of time."

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that SCAA is holding up its hands on some aspects of the key stage 3 English tests. SCAA's chairman, Sir Ron Dearing, has written to schools on the subject. Mr Hawker made no bones about accepting that: "There was some inconsistency in the marking and we need to sort that out for next year. There are a number of things we can do about mark schemes, and about the training and supervision of markers. It is crucial that we have good markers doing the work and the boards will be paying attention to that in their recruitment of markers for next year."

At the root of the problem, he suggests, is that English is a notoriously difficult subject to mark and the pool of marking expertise has, over the past few years, quietly ebbed away "simply because up to recently a lot of GCSE syllabuses were 100 per cent coursework. We need to train people properly to mark English tests."

SCAA intends to head off future conflict and misunderstanding by improving communication between markers and schools. It will be setting up a consultative group of English teachers, advisers and other experts to discuss ways of further improving the tests and marking.

Teachers will obviously welcome the opportunity to meet senior markers well before conflict arises, and will, presumably, want to be sure that there is genuine dialogue and consultation.

Summary of the changes to TESTS for 1996

Key Stage 1

* No structural change. Theoptional reading comprehensionstays optional.

Key Stage 2

* Science. No structural change, buta change in emphasis towards contextualised questions which will reflect the latest science curriculum and should allay worries aboutthis year's level 5.

* Maths. An easier run in on the graded test (but no difference in general level of difficulty or to the principle of a paper that gradually gets harder). Separate calculator and non-calculator papers.

* English. Separate level 6extension paper.

Key Stage 3

* Attention to worries about English directed at recruitment and trainingof markers, marking schemes and liaison between teachers and markers.

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