Before you panic over testing at 11

Before another bout of panic sets in following the publication of the 1998 national test results for 11-year-olds consider the following: the results do not enable any judgments to be made about changing overall standards in English or maths since the tests used relate to only part, rather than the whole, of the national curriculum requirements in those subjects.

Second, the extent to which the tests adequately reflect those areas they purport to assess is questionable. Your readers need to be satisfied that all the important aspects of maths or English are adequately represented and tested by the items used. I suspect many will not be satisfied.

Third, there is ample research evidence that any changes in test wording, content or administration between one year and the next render invalid any year-on-year comparisons. The 1997 and 1998 tests in both English and mathematics differ significantly in both wording and content. Thus comparisons are invalid.

The Government, Department for Education and Employment and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority need to recognise that no year-on-year comparisons are possible, and thus no proof that national targets in English and mathematics have been met (or not met) unless exactly the same tests are administered in exactly the same way to comparable cohorts of children.

Clearly, this cannot happen on a national scale since all teachers of Year 6 children would have to administer the same tests year-on-year, would be familiar with the content of such tests and would inevitably, and justifiably (given that their reputation and that of their schools are at stake), "teach to the test" in succeeding years.

There is a simple and relatively cheap alternative to the folly, anxiety, unreliability and invalidity that characterise the current assessment regime.

First, to record trends over time and to see how far government targets are being met, exactly the same tests should be administered each year in the same way to a nationally representative sample of 11-year-olds, not by their class teachers, but confidentially by outside testers. Statisticians would determine the size of the sample, but it would probably number in the low thousands rather than the huge cohorts currently and expensively subject to national tests.

Second, to give parents the information many want (as opposed to the "level-type" information many don't understand), the QCA should commission short, standardised tests related to "basic" reading, number and, ideally, oracy skills and require schools to administer these and report the results to parents on an annual or less frequent basis.

These two procedures would enable the Government to monitor standards over time and parents to receive information on how their children are performing in those three basic areas. It would also save a huge amount of money and remove an enormous source of anxiety and pressure from primary teachers.

Colin Richards Professor University College of St Martin 1 Bobbin Mill Spark Bridge Cumbria

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