Magazine article Public Finance

Put to the Test

Magazine article Public Finance

Put to the Test

Article excerpt

These are testing times for the national tests popularly known as Sats. Schools Secretary Ed Balls had to give written weekly updates on this year's tests during August, after serious delays in delivering the results.

These have now put back the publication of primary league tables by three months, a hugely embarrassing development for the government. The US company responsible, ETS, has lost its contract. And Lord Sutherland, a former chief inspector of schools, is charged with reporting on what went wrong. Computerisation and a wrangle over whether examiners should be trained personally or online are currently being blamed.

Whatever the reasons, the chaos surrounding the Standard Assessment Tests has given impetus to calls for an end to the £50m a year testing programme, amid claims that English children are the most tested in the world. Yet English pupils face only two sets of compulsory externally marked tests, at ages 11 and 14 - key stages 2 and 3 - in English, maths and science, although many schools also use optional tests in other years. Teacher assessments are compulsory at seven. But because many pupils sit external GCSEs, AS and A2 exams in quick succession between the ages of 16 and 18, critics say youngsters are over-tested. And their results are aggregated in league tables, which opponents blame for pupils doing too much test preparation.

An academic review of primary education, led by Cambridge Professor Robin Alexander, one of the 'three wise men' appointed by the Conservatives to review primary schools in 1991, is nearing completion. Claiming to be 'the most comprehensive such investigation since the publication of the Plowden Report [which heralded child-centred teaching] in 1967', its interim reports have concluded that there has been a 'decrease in the overall quality of primary education... because of the narrowing of the curriculum and the intensity of test preparation.

Meanwhile, a government-commissioned review of primary education by former Ofsted inspector Sir Jim Rose is expected to propose an overhaul of the primary school curriculum, with more emphasis on traditional teaching methods and a new place for modern languages at Key Stage 2. It is producing an interim report later this month.

Many education academics in England still oppose the school reforms of the past 20 years, as do the teaching unions. Last month, academics at Bristol and Durham universities claimed that testing was distorting science teaching. But there are less strident critics too. The Commons select committee for children, schools and families, while recognising that a certain amount of national testing at key points in a child's school career is necessary', has objected to the multiple purposes for which testing is used.

It argues that measuring pupil attainment should be decoupled from school accountability. Even the head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, Ken Boston, whose responsibilities for test regulation have been transferred to a new quango, Ofqual, has suggested that national tests could be replaced by a small sample of pupils.

Yet these dual purposes have arguably made a positive difference. For, as well as providing the only annual objective external measures of primary school progress, the national tests have undoubtedly helped improve schools. They have not done so alone: regular inspection and performance tables introduced by the Conservatives in the early 1990s have played their part, alongside some of Labour's national targets.

Combined with a stronger focus on traditional teaching of the 3Rs, this accountability has led to significant improvements in test scores. In 1995, 49% of 11-year-olds reached level 4 and 45% did so in maths. After an outcry about low standards, Labour declared that level 4 should be the 'expected' standard for children, and set ambitious targets. Although those targets were missed, they did drive real improvements. By this year, the proportion 11 -year-olds making the grade had risen to 81% in English and 78% in maths, with 72% achieving that level in both subjects. …

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