Are the national tests failing our children?

'The teachers just have to get on with it'
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The Independent Online
On Tuesday morning this week, Rush Common County Primary School, in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, addressed itself in a mood of weary resignation to the task of getting its 69 seven-year-olds through their tests. Next week its 11-year-olds will also be engrossed in the tests, which occupy a large amount of the school's time and effort, and necessitate much jiggling of timetables so that teachers can cover for one another as they test small groups.

Since the first standard assessment tasks, now called tests, began five years ago, John Fisher, the head teacher, says there has been nothing but change. "Each year they have altered things and tried to refine the tests a bit more. Even now they are not exactly what I would call manageable, in terms of the time they take up, but this year the Government has got to say, 'this is it', and not make any more changes."

Tinkering with the tests has resulted in a shifting of standards. This year, for instance, it will be harder to achieve a level 1 in the English test for seven-year-olds, which will require firm evidence of reading ability. Eleven-year-olds will also have to have a fuller range of scientific knowledge and skills to gain a level 5. External markers, brought in last year for the first time, will this year be subject to more rigorous training to ensure that previous lapses in consistency will not be repeated. And there have been ambiguities in previous tests, says Mr Fisher, such as whether calculators could be used; this year, for the first time, 11-year- olds will sit a "non-calculator" paper in maths.

For the staff at Rush Common school, the constant changes and increased volume of paperwork to accommodate and explain them have simply added to the enormous strain they are already under, says Mr Fisher. "Primary teachers are always getting it in the neck, but here they have worked jolly hard and been pretty adaptable. It's not easy, but they just get on with it."

For the parents, a large amount of time has had to he spent, in school "surgeries", explaining to them how the tests have changed each year, how the standards have been modified. "They are not daft, these parents; they want to know what's happening, especially if they have had other children in previous years, taking slightly different tests. We have been confused ourselves by the tests, so of course they have been. It's very difficult keeping abreast."

The tests need a great deal more time to "bed down", Mr Fisher says, before they can really be relied on. "They can confirm a judgement we have already made ourselves - for instance, that a particular child is strong in maths - but that is all we can use them for. What concerns me greatly is that they might be used by others, for political reasons, as comparative markers, to show that standards are higher or lower than in previous years."

Tests that have been as unstable as these can show no such thing, he warns. "I'm even cynical about the use of external markers, which is a very expensive way of doing things. I think they might just be a ploy for getting hold of the information to put in the Government's league tables."