Rise in numeracy and literacy 'has been exaggerated'

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A report by Professor Colin Richards, a former specialist adviser in primary education for Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, says the rise in standards in maths and English tests for 11-year-olds has been exaggerated.

This year's results, expected this morning, are believed to show an increase of just over 1 per cent in the number of youngsters reaching the required standards in maths and English.

The rise will mean the results are hovering around the target which Labour set for 2002 - of 80 per cent in English and 75 per cent in maths - but make it almost certain that the Government will miss its target of 85 per cent in each subject set as an aspiration for 2006.

In his study, commissioned by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), Professor Richards says research suggests that in English in particular national results may overestimate progress and have produced an "illusory" rise.

He says the "high stakes" nature of the tests has prompted teachers to spend more time coaching youngsters for them. As a result, improvements were not sustained into secondary school, because pupils' overall understanding of the subject had not increased as markedly.

In addition, it had made markers more "lenient" with borderline cases of pupils on the verge of meeting the necessary standard as they realised the impact that their verdict could have on schools, which are ranked in primary school league tables on their performance in tests for 11-year-olds.

Separate teacher assessments of their pupils' ability in maths and English also indicated a lower rate of improvement; 12 per cent as opposed to 18 per cent in English between 1996 and 2001 and 14 per cent as opposed to 17 per cent in maths. "It would appear teachers of children at the end of key stage two (11-year-olds) have been rather more conservative in claiming large rises than the Government or Ofsted," Professor Richards says.

A fourth source of data for his claim stems from the performance indicators in schools project, which gave 11-year-olds in 122 schools the same maths and English test over a four-year period. "These results suggest there was a substantial rise in mathematics but almost stable performance in reading at a time when the key stage two results on national tests were rising steadily and between 1997 and 2000 very rapidly," he says.

Professor Richards added: "Standards are too important and too value-laden to be left to the whim of government ministers. An independent body is needed to keep standards under review and devise a national system for assessing performance."

Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL, said: "Standards have become a political football. The ritual controversy about whether standards are rising or falling doesn't get to the heart of what we mean by standards."