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Tests prompt staff to put more emphasis on 'basic skills'

Sir Ron Dearing's 1995 Review of Assessment and Testing reported that schools "were likely in future to spend more time preparing pupils for the tests".

Our research evidence backs this up: it shows that the majority of Year 6 teachers have made changes to their teaching, even if they were happy with last year's scores, even if they reflected their own teacher assessment results - even if they thought the tests were unfair, badly designed or marked too harshly.

Over the past three years our project, National Assessment in Primary Schools: an evaluation, has been studying Year 6 teachers' testing and teacher assessment practices. We worked with 31 randomly-chosen project schools in four local education authorities.

We found that the overwhelming change in Year 6 classroom practice is the new emphasis on test preparation in all core subjects.

In English more than half of our teachers are doing more timed writing, practice tests and comprehension work. In maths, nearly three-quarters were spending time doing practice tests, timed work, revision and more systematic testing at the end of a unit. And in science, more than half spent more time on practice tests and revision.

The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's 1995 Review identifies "concerns about the possible adverse effects on the quality of pupils' use and application of mathematics" and in science "a move away from investigative work, so that more time could be spent on acquiring scientific knowledge". Our evidence suggests that teachers are reassessing their practice in these areas. Just under half of those in our study have reconsidered their approach to maths, particularly in "tackling problem-solving".

Two equally divided "camps" emerged based on differing views of "problem-solving". One has introduced a sharper focus on "real life" maths, looking for the practical application of maths across the curriculum: "I try to link everything to problems....they can't answer the problem unless they know the process and they've got to understand the process."

A second group of teachers defined "problem-solving" as the ability to answer the "puzzle" type questions in the test paper.

In science the shift away from investigative work to a broader knowledge-based curriculum is, for some of our teachers, a straightforward one, summed up by this quote, "I'm not b***ering about with hunting for mini-beasts.... they'll learn just as well with their arms folded". For others getting the balance between knowledge and process is more problematic, as one teacher said: "once again, it's the eternal dilemma, do we do lively practical sessions for OFSTED, or do we teach content and knowledge which is the way science is tested? Teaching content, I know, is not the best way to teach science, but there is so much to get through."

Meanwhile, almost three-quarters of our schools made policy changes affecting classes throughout the school. Overall, headteachers are reporting more emphasis on "basic skills."

School organisation has changed. A third of our schools have changed from mixed-ability teaching to some form of setting. Half have moved away from cross-curricular topic work towards more subject-based teaching, but only two schools said they introduced specialist subject teaching. A quarter now do more whole class teaching.

Just under half of our schools have started to do formal testing throughout the junior years as a matter of policy, ranging from weekly tests to cumulative testing by year group.

While test preparation has increased, teachers say they are spending less time on individual teaching, oral and practical work and hearing children read.

Testing has clearly been a catalyst for change. HMI have reported that some schools are already starting to exploit the tests' potential for improving the pace and precision of their teaching, but Sir Ron's review has identified the importance of monitoring this, and watching for any perceivable narrowing of the curriculum over the next few years.

The project, researched by Brenda Taggart, Bet McCallum, Caroline Gipps and Margaret Brown, is run jointly by the London University Institute of Education and Kings College

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