Tests that put trainees' future in the balance

Student teachers deride basic skills tests as pointless and a source of unnecessary stress, reports Lynn Huggins-Cooper

Since February 2001, all those wanting to qualify as teachers have had to pass computerised skills tests in numeracy and literacy. In September 2001 the ICT skills test began, and since May 1, 2002, students have had to pass all three skills tests before they can be awarded QTS.

Back in the mists of time, when I qualified, there were no skills tests as such. Teachers were assumed to have achieved a certain level of numeracy and literacy by passing O-levels in the subjects required. This is no longer, it seems, sufficient proof.

At times, on the other side of the fence as a lecturer, marking assignments, and as a classroom teacher with a student on placement, I have wondered if the O-levelGCSE requirement was indeed enough to prove a student was numerate and literate. Trust me - it can be alarming to see spelling mistakes writ large on a whiteboard in front of a class. Teachers need to be educated folk or they'll pass on their mistakes to a whole new generation.

Of course, lecturers try to ensure that students have access to materials and experiences that not only prepare them to teach, but also increase their own subject knowledge. In the world of initial teacher training, this is not a realistic option. As a primary PGCE course teacher, I know students worry about their levels of understanding in subjects such as maths, English and science - and there is too little time during taught sessions to provide students with everything they need to know. Students are given vast amounts of reading to expand their subject knowledge, on top of assignments, preparation for school experiences, job applications and so on. So it is perhaps little wonder that the added stress of the skills tests is a real burden for some.

With helplines, benchmark tests and lists of suggested texts to support learning, why do students find the skills tests so stressful? A whole new set of terrifying "skills tests urban myths" has sprung up, telling of students sobbing and swearing, losing it completely and running amok in the test centres - but what is the reality?

I asked some of my own students for their views. They overwhelmingly derided the tests as pointless and a source of unnecessary stress. Typical comments included: "They were basic and easy to do, and the whole process was well organised, but they were hyped up to be a lot worse than they were. It was too much added stress for nothing."

Another said: "They are an extra hassle in an already horrifically busy schedule. The fact that we need GCSE English, maths and science to get on the course should be enough evidence without these tests."

Yet another explained: "I passed the tests, but they were a waste of time. I should have been concentrating on my teaching practice. I know someone who quit the course because of the numeracy test."

At least one student, though, did find the tests tough, and said teachers who qualified before they were introduced should be thankful, saying: "The tests are quite demanding. It's a good job they don't apply the tests retrospectively as there are probably loads of teachers who would struggle to pass." I didn't like the way the student looked at me as he said that.

In 20002001, 350 students failed either the maths or the literacy test by the end of the year. Even so, up to August 2001, 99 per cent of students passed the literacy tests and 98 per cent passed the numeracy tests. And students can keep on taking the test until they achieve the 60 per cent pass mark. So what are the tests for? Are they a valid method of determining whether or not students are numerate and literate and have sufficient ICT skills to function as a teacher? Or are they, as students seem to believe, just another hoop to jump through?

Lynn Huggins-Cooper is a PGCE lecturer at Newcastle University

Help yourself

* The Teacher Training Agency website is useful: www.canteach.gov.uk

* Using the site, familiarise yourself with the layout of the tests by looking at examples

* Look at the benchmark tests, too. They will help you get a feel for the level of knowledge required to pass the tests. Look at the pass mark for these benchmark tests - at 60 per cent, this equates to 26 out of 43 marks for the literacy test; 17 out of 28 marks for the numeracy test and 26 out of 43 marks for the ICT test. These are certainly achievable

* Study the sample interactive questions and commentaries for each subject

* Read the study guide. It includes details of what the tests cover, their format and structure

* Make use of the email helpline provided for each subject

* Consider referring to books recommended on each subject

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