Education: Oceans apart on standards

Primary school tests were never meant to set targets that every child should reach. Labour plans to change the rules - and adopt the egalitaria n philosophy of the Far East. Judith Judd explains
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Parents reading through last week's primary school performance tables may have been very confused by what they were looking at, if the reaction of one mother last summer is anything to go by.

The woman who had just received her 11-year-old son's national test results came into his primary school looking distraught. "He's only got Level 5," she complained. In fact, her son had done very well. Eleven-year-olds are expected to reach Level 4. Those who reach Level 5 are supposed to be two years ahead of their age group, and those who only reach Level 3 are supposed to be two years behind.

It is not surprising that parents are confused about what the tests mean. They were originally conceived to sort children roughly into three groups: those who were at the expected standard for their age, those who were above, and those who were below. The results were expected to come out in much the same way as if children had been grouped according to their height: a normal distribution curve. Around half would reach the middle level and the rest would group themselves more or less equally on either side.

But people always found it hard to understand this. When the first tests for seven-year-olds showed that around a quarter had not reached the expected standard in reading, there was a predictable outcry from the "standards are falling" brigade. In fact, the results had come out much as everyone would have expected.

There was a similar outcry when fewer than half children failed to reach the expected Level 4 in the 11-year-old tests the year before last. That, too, however, was open to question. Nobody knew until 600,000 11-year- olds took the test what standard could be expected of the nation's 11- year-olds. The tests were devised by experts who based them on their own estimate of what 11-year-olds should be able to do. The difficulty of pitching tests at the right level was at once clear: children had done much better in science than they had in maths and English. Last year, the science tests were made harder.

The task force headed by Professor Paul Black which drew up plans for the original tests did not envisage that there would be no improvement in standards. On the contrary, as teachers became more familiar with the new curriculum and started to teach to the test, standards were expected to rise.

That, however, was a completely different idea from the one now being proposed by the Labour party: that all children should be brought up to Level 4 in English within a decade of a Labour government taking office.

Whereas Professor Black and his team intended Level 4 to represent the achievement of a typical 11-year-old, Labour intends it to represent a minimum standard.

The change proposed by Labour is fundamental. It will mean not only that we have to think again about "levels" in national tests, but also about our whole philosophy of education. The assumption prevalent in British schools that some children will always struggle to reach reasonable levels of literacy and numeracy is being challenged. Instead, we are to adopt the egalitarian philosophy of countries in the Pacific Rim, who insist that all children can be brought to an acceptable standard.

Can it be done? Labour points to successful experiments in New Zealand, Australia and the United States in which all but a small percentage of children have acquired "literacy". The difficulty is that nobody seems sure whether the standards that children abroad reach by the age of 11 are comparable with the standards we are demanding of our 11-year-olds.

Prof Black's original testing regime took into account the huge range of ability in children even as young as 11. It will require a big effort from both schools and a Labour government to reduce that rangen