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Thrown in at the deep end;Research Focus

Secondary school teachers share Chris Woodhead's concerns about testing according to research which shows they prefer to find out for themselves what the new intake of 11-year-olds can do. Sandie Schagen reports

We try to start them at the same level, and see who struggles." These are the words of a secondary teacher describing her approach to new pupils.

A similar approach was adopted by many of the teachers interviewed for a research project on progression from primary to secondary school conducted by the National Foundation for Educational Research. They confirmed that the "clean slate" approach is still flourishing in many Year 7 classrooms.

Why do so many secondary teachers fail to take account of what pupils have achieved in primary school? Our research indicated a variety of reasons, some of which reflect a lack of confidence in the national tests and their administration. (Some of those views were similar to those of chief inspector Chris Woodhead, whose criticisms were reported in The TES on December 18).

Some teachers may not know the levels which their pupils attained in key stage 2. Evidence from a telephone survey showed that one in five secondary schools did not receive the legally-required minimum information about new pupils, even from primary schools where close links had been established.

And even when the information reaches the secondary school, it may not be passed on to all the teachers who need it.

Many teachers do not trust the KS2 levels awarded to pupils by primary teachers. They argued that these assessments tended to overestimate children's ability, and standards varied between feeder schools. National tests were also perceived as unreliable; no link was identified between last year's level 4 and this year's, or between the same level at KS2 and KS3.

Other teachers fail to use KS2 results because "the levels are so broad, they are meaningless", or because "they arrive too late to be of any use".

However, a local authority officer observed that "the notion of a fresh start is appalling", and another commented: "If the national curriculum means anything at all, you should pick up children at the level they have attained."

What could be done to help realise this goal? There are several practical changes which would make KS2 test results easier to access and increase their potential value. For example:

* primary schools could be required to send pupils' scores on to secondary schools, rather than simply the levels;

* data could be transferred electronically, or in a standard format; * the timetable for administering and marking tests could be revised, so the results reached secondary schools earlier.

Recent publications from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority have encouraged such developments, but not enforced them. For example, age-standardised scores have been made available.

Further steps could be taken, but would they necessarily lead to greater use of KS2 information in the Year 7 classroom? I am not convinced. A number of important underlying questions still need to be addressed.

First, are the expectations engendered by the national curriculum realistic? If schools or individual subject departments have a policy of setting in Year 7, primary information could in theory be used to group pupils from the very beginning, rather than waiting at least half a term (as most do) and then forming sets based mainly on the secondary school's own tests or teacher observation.

In a mixed-ability context, it is not so straightforward. Given that teachers may face 100 or more new entrants each September, is it actually feasible for them to plan learning based on the prior attainment of each individual pupil?

We tend to assume that Year 7 teachers should take account of pupils' achievements in primary schools, and criticise them for failing to do so. But to what extent do teachers in other years use information available from the pupils' previous teachers within the same school? On the available evidence, the answer appears to be "very little".

Teachers may fail to use evidence of prior attainment for a range of reasons. Some may be negative - they do not trust the data or they do not have time to absorb it - but certainly not all.

Some of our interviewees argued positively in favour of the "fresh start": they felt that children who had not performed well at primary school should not be handicapped by low teacher expectations on transfer.

If such views are widely held, no amount of tinkering with the timetable for test administration will lead to greater use of key stage 2 test results in secondary schools. Their use will only increase if teachers are convinced of the case for using them, and perhaps get guidance on howto do so.

Dr Sandie Schagen is a senior research officer at the National Foundation for Educational Research. The full report of the project, "Bridging the gap?" National curriculum and progression from primary to secondary school," will be published by the NFER in March

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