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Tests provoke fears of return of 11-plus ethos

Researchers find old classroom styles on the way back as teachers try to prepare for national tests in May, reports Diane Hofkins. New research by the University of London is likely to fuel worries that tests for 11-year-olds will bring an 11-plus ethos back to primary schools. Some teachers have begun using last summer's pilot test materials to help children prepare for the first statutory run, which will be held during the week of May 15.

The National Assessment in Primary Schools project has found that this year, 12 Year 6 teachers from the 32 schools being studied in four LEAs have been using last year's materials, either as they stand, or as a model for their own tests in the run up to the official national exams.

Project director Professor Margaret Brown said: "The evidence from schools is that some of them are looking at coaching children.. Certainly the atmosphere in some of the schools was very 11-plussy. They had children lined in serried ranks in the hall, pencils up."

She said teachers had found last year's science tests in particular were driving them to change from an open, process-based approach to a more knowledge-based one.

Meanwhile, the Office for Standards in Education inspectors emphasised exploration skills, so teachers were being pulled in two directions. Although last year's tests were not mandatory, teachers took them seriously; 22 made changes to space and pupil arrangements in order to encourage best possible performance. In nine schools, extra adults were on hand, the study found.

"Teachers felt that tests were good preparation for the future and were observed to encourage children to take the test seriously, while allaying fears," said researcher Bet McCallum.

Most children faced the tests - comprising paper-and-pencil exercises for all but those with special needs - with equanimity and took them seriously. "Many classrooms were totally silent," said Ms McCallum.

The researchers identified five testing styles adopted by teachers.

* Invigilators "had set the tone by changing furniture into an exam room configuration, often moving to the hall as an attempt to set up silent uninterrupted conditions," said Ms McCallum.

Instructions were often given in an official tone, and when the test was over "these teachers usually formalised the procedures by announcing that the test had ended ("tough luck time's up") and asking everyone to close their booklets and remain silent and seated until the papers had been collected."

* Disassociators set a similar tone, but left children to get on with it, while they got on with their own work.

* Targeters kept a check on pupils with problems.

* Involverscomforters played down the tests, helping children as much as possible without giving away answers, and changed the classroom very little.

* Rubric explainers involved children in discussion before the test, but distanced themselves during it.

Despite union advice to boycott the 1994 pilot, 26 of the 32 schools in the NAPS project carried out all or some of the tests, but 12 said they would not use the results at all; six said they would use them for reporting to parents; two said they used them to confirm their own assessments of pupils and seven said they were using them for planning.

Twenty-two of the 27 teachers said they were worth doing because they had confirmed their own judgments; were good preparation for the statutory tests; highlighted gaps in learning; and offered a yardstick for parents.

More boys got extra attention than girls (13 to four), and nine boys were told off compared with three girls. Queries were more equal - 32 came from boys and 27 from girls. Girls finished the tests more quickly.

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