Thursday 7 May 2009

A reasonable way forward on testing?

Reports about the likely recommendations of the expert group on testing have focused on the plans to replace the Key Stage 2 science tests with assessment. Since this blog recommended this as a way forward - and it has been welcomed by the science teachers' association - this is a sensible way of reducing the amount of testing whilst focusing on the basics.

Of course, it is the primary responsibility of primary schools to ensure that children know how to read, write and add up properly by the age of eleven. And the state has a duty to parents and taxpayers to make sure that they are doing so. Of course, there may be different ways of doing this - and the expert group seems wisely to be urging more piloting of the so-called progress tests that pupils would take as they are ready - but such tests must be externally set and marked. And they should be taken at least once by every pupil in every primary school.

Of course, the NAHT and NUT don't like this. But the NAHT general secretary - fresh from trumpeting his dodgy 'poll of parents' - told Today this morning that the scrapping of science 'narrows the curriculum too much'. So, he is no longer concerned to reduce the 'burden of testing'? Logically, then children should be tested in every subject, not none, as Mr Brookes admits that the presence of tests concentrates teachers' minds on getting children to pass them.

In truth, the revision that pupils do for tests in English and Maths can and should be a time to ensure that they have learnt how to read and write, and that they know their grammar, spelling, punctuation and mathematical rules. How does Mr Brookes imagine these children will get on in secondary school if they can't?If there is too much pressure on pupils, that is the fault of schools and parents, and not the tests.

But there is one respect where the expert group and those teachers' leaders who oppose a boycott may be being disingenuous, if advance reports are right: with respect to the publication of results. As a general principle in a society where freedom of information is the norm, it would be intolerable not to publish the test results. So, the results would appear in school report cards. Fine.

But there is a suggestion that the government might stop publishing the results on the same day, to avoid newspapers compiling league tables. We did, in fact, leave publication to individual local authorities in 1998 precisely for this reason, and apart from inconveniencing the education correspondents, it made no difference. The Press Association had to work a bit harder. There was less celebration of good and improving schools. So we returned to national publication.

With report cards, the newspapers will still publish the results. Surely, the DCSF must continue to make it easy for parents and others to search for any school's results on its website?

Of course, the real reason why these unions don't want the tests is not that they really think they 'damage' children. It is that they don't like the scrutiny that their publication brings. But such scrutiny has spurred so many of them to improve in recent years. The tests should stay; and their results should remain easily accessible to all.


Chris Padden said...

The issue that Headteachers have with testing/league tables is not scrutiny. It's the validity of what is inferred.

I work with a 500+ primary schools on their internal assessment strategy and the vast majority do not believe SATs are a fair reflection of their school.

When the BBC publishes league tables, they also produce a list of schools with 'The best results' and 'The worst results'. What is inferred is that a school on 'The best results' list is a good school, and a school on 'The worst results' is a bad school and that if a parent had the choice between one or the other they should choose the former rather than the latter.

Gorton Mount Primary school is on the list of 'The worst results'. It's in an area of high deprivation and children entering the school are attaining well below the national average. Roughly 50% of their pupils go on to attain level 4 in English, Maths and Science in Year 6.

However, if you take into account the context of Gorton Mount and the progress that is made, they outperform 116 of the 359 schools in 'The best results'.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, a school based in an affluent, leafy area of Hertfordshire, was in the list of 'The best results' with 100% of their pupils attaining level 4. However they had quite a difficult year with 3 Headteachers over 12 months, but as every child entering the school is bright and has parents who are engaged with their learning then the number of children attaining level 4 will always be 100%.

You may believe that accountability and scrutiny are important, but whilst Headteachers are judged on a metric that is a poor indicator of performance they can rightly feel aggrieved.

Conor Ryan said...


There are several issues here - how schools should be judged and the extent to which other factors are taken into account, and what information is published. Actually, thanks to changes Labour made at DFEE, schools are judged on improvement as well as overall performance. There are also value added data which many schools can highlight. And more should be made of level 5 in the 'leafy' schools you mention. But in the end, it does matter whether schools get their pupils to a basic standard in English and Maths; and parents are not stupid - they are capable of weighing up the results along with issues such as the catchment served. The issue is whether they should be denied such information, as the NAHT and NUT want. I don't think they should - and if test results weren't used, you can be pretty sure something else will take their place to fill the void. Before national tests, parents had to rely on rumour and anecdote, after all.