Friday 2 November 2007

Testing, testing, testing...

Today is the day when the ideological opponents of testing are attempting to throw their entire armoury at the system which has rescued children from the ideological oddities that characterised primary school teaching for many of the post-Plowden generation. Our friends from the North, at Durham university - the ones who also think homework is bad for you - are out in force rehashing their attack on reading from a few years back. To unravel all the various claims being made, it is worth remembering the following:

* The Literacy Strategy was as much about writing as reading, and writing standards - with teachers encouraged to reintroduce good spelling and correct grammar as part of their mission - have increased by 14 percentage points since 1997.

* Maths is also tested, funny enough. And the NFER study accompanying today's report suggests there has been significant improvement there, which is borne out by international studies, and reflected in the national tests, showing an improvement from 64% in 1997 to 77% this year, a 13 percentage point increase.

* The Primary Review's own evidence suggests it is teachers and parents, not children, who are the most anxious about tests, which is not all that surprising when you think about it.

So, we are then left with an argument about reading, not testing, which is not, I know where those behind this morning's 'swap teaching for fun' report would like us to be. Now, as it happens, I have felt for some time that synthetic phonics should be a central part of the early teaching of children to read (and that means teaching them to read, not showing them books and expecting them to pick it up by osmosis) and there has been plenty of evidence on that. This is precisely the change the government has made over the last two years, thanks to the excellent Rose Review (pdf) and it is now coming into effect in primaries.

But this doesn't mean there have been no measurable improvements in reading since 1997. Here are four facts that suggest otherwise:

* Improvements measured through the national tests have been greatest in the most disadvantaged and underachieving schools, where floor targets have sought to lift minimum standards

* As well as there being a significant improvement in English at level 4, there has also been a substantial improvement at level 5 for 11 year-olds, putting them at the same standard as 14 year-olds. The numbers reaching this higher standard have doubled.

* Jim Rose headed an independent review in 1999 (pdf) of the testing process - with headteachers nominated by the opposition parties and the education editor of the Times as members. It showed that complaints about dumbing down were without foundation.

* Teacher assessments, the holy grail for those seeking to abolish national tests, recorded the same results as the tests in the disputed years.

Let's make sure we don't lose the gains made since the introduction of the national curriculum and testing by allowing ourselves to be seduced back to the bad old days when children were not taught to read properly and when we didn't know it because there were no national tests. And let nobody lose sight of the importance of teaching children to read.

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