Trials and tribulations

This week thousands of seven-, 11- and 14-year-olds are sitting their end of stage tests, a measure of their progress through the national curriculum. The tests have been beset by controversy since they were first introduced in the early Nineties.
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Eleven-year-old tests

Parents may be forgiven for being confused about what experts mean when they say that Level 4 is the expected standard for an 11-year- old. According to the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA), which advises the government on exams, they do not mean that Level 4 is an average. Nor do they mean that they expect all or nearly all 11-year- olds to reach that standard. Instead, they say that at least three-quarters of pupils should be achieving Level 4 or above at age 11.

The interpretation goes back to the 1987 report produced by Professor Paul Black of King's College, London, which outlined the present national testing system. The report showed a normal curve of distribution for pupils' test results with around 50 per cent getting Level 4, around 25 per cent getting less and around 25 per cent getting more.

The report indicates that about 80 per cent of pupils would achieve Levels 3, 4 or 5. In fact, the projection proved inaccurate and fewer than 10 per cent of pupils are actually outside the range of the three levels.

At present, test results suggest that more pupils are at Level 3 than at Level 5. For last year, the figures were between 28 and 34 per cent at Level 3, between 40 and 50 per cent at Level 4 and between 12 and 16 per cent at Level 5. However, SCAA believes that the balance should shift towards Level 5 as pupils' performance improves.

The figure which SCAA proposes - 75 per cent of pupils reaching Level 4 - is not an official target. And it is not fixed for ever. The authority believes that pupils could do better if big efforts are made by schools to improve performance in the tests. That is the intention of the new Labour government which aims to see that, within two decades, all children reach Level 4 .

For the moment, the message to parents reading the league tables is clear: any school with a middle class catchment area which is not getting 75 per cent of its pupils to Level 4 should be asked some searching questions.

Reading tests

Under pressure from parents, backed up with research findings, curriculum advisors have admitted that the test scores given to primary school children do not give an accurate record of their progress.

This year, for the first time, schools will have the option of giving parents of 11-year-olds actual test marks in reading, writing and maths in place of a single figure showing the level of the national curriculum reached. They will also be able to provide parents with an age-related score assessing children's performance against the average for their age to within one month.

The National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE) does not object to such detailed scoring for seven-year-olds at key stage 1 - introduced last year. At seven, teachers argue, children are still young enough for the difference between the oldest, born in the autumn, and youngest, born in summer, to be taken into account.

By key stage 2, NATE says, such gaps will have been ironed out, and highly detailed scoring instead becomes a liability by bestowing an impression of high accuracy on an inconsistent marking system. General secretary Anne Barnes points to research carried out on behalf of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers earlier this year, revealing some confusingly- worded questions and variable marking in the key stage 2 tests. She says: "It does not seem to me there is any point in going on adding more interpretations unless you have got the testing instrument right, and I don't think it is at the moment."

NATE's Terry Furlong agrees, arguing that a real danger would emerge if secondary schools used unreliable age scores to make decisions on setting or streaming children straight from primary school.

SCAA, however, insists that the new scoring facilities, which are not statutory, offer teachers a range of extra educational tools to use if they wish. A spokeswoman said: "This involves no extra work for the pupils, but gives different forms of reporting more information. SCAA is encouraging teachers to use them and encouraging secondary schools to ask for them, to improve progression between key stages 2 and 3."

Calculators

Fourteen-year-olds as well as 11-year-olds will be barred from using calculators in one of the maths papers in this year's tests.

Last year, both papers in the 14-year-old tests mixed questions for which calculators were allowed with questions for which they were not. By contrast, last year's 11-year-old tests were changed to confine calculator use to one paper.

One reason for the changes to both tests, says SCAA, is that invigilating teachers found it difficult to check whether pupils were playing fair. They said that it was impossible to keep track of which question each pupil had reached.

There were also deeper reasons. An authority spokeswoman says: "It signals to young people in a very positive way that you can't always assume that you will have calculator. Teachers felt that it made their task easier both in administering the test and in telling children that they needed to master these skills."

The background to the decision is growing unease about the use of calculators, particularly in primary schools. It is a sign of the times that new mental arithmetic tests are to be given their first trials this year. Calculators are used more in British primary schools than in any other country in the world. Some experts argue that this is one of the reasons for British pupils' poor showing in international maths tests.

Most teachers accept that reliance on calculators has gone too far. Professor Margaret Brown, of King's College, London says: "There is a general acceptance that it isn't unreasonable to have some part of the assessment which is calculator-free." However, she says, teachers will want to monitor the tests to see whether all the questions on the calculator-free paper can most sensibly be answered without a calculator.

She is also concerned that the message will go out that calculators are bad and people should be encouraged not to use them. "A lot of this is to do with prejudice. Nobody has really thought out what exactly students are going to need in terms of calculator use in the year 2000."

Shakespeare

Opposition to the Shakespeare paper being taken by 14-year-olds this month rests not on changes made this time round but on the fact that the test format is exactly the same as before.

While in no doubt that teenagers should be exposed to the genius of the Bard, the English teaching lobby remains convinced that a 75-minute test paper requiring pupils to write an essay on one of three set plays is not the way to ensure they gain the most from a foray into Shakespeare country.

But the government's curriculum advisors for England, backed by costly research projects, insist that the key stage 3 Shakespeare paper is one of the most popular of the SATS tests with youngsters across the ability range.

Trials last year of alternative approaches, including pure teacher assessment and a mix of assessment and testing, have not convinced the SCAA in England that a superior method exists.

In contrast, its Welsh equivalent recommended this week, on the basis of the same research, that Shakespeare be removed from the key stage 3 tests altogether in Welsh schools on a trial basis and be covered instead by teacher assessment.

NATE hopes that England's curriculum chiefs will follow the lead of colleagues across the Welsh border. NATE officer and former chair Terry Furlong sees the Shakespeare paper as "an artificial hurdle" which, unlike the reading and writing components of the key stage 3 tests, bears no relation to the tests pupils have undergone at key stage 2.

He says: "The paper is not really testing whether they can read and understand Shakespeare but whether they can reproduce a particular kind of literary essay." Children who have already fallen behind in English by the time they leave primary school suffer particularly badly as a result of the style of Shakespeare testing, he argues.

SCAA says it has developed the paper deliberately to connect with the new style of Shakespeare teaching in schools, which focuses on the plays as scripts for acting rather than literary texts, to be read aloud round the class, if at all. Pupils are encouraged to write about how they would direct Juliet in the Balcony Scene, or how they think Bottom the weaver believes his presentation of Pyramus and Thisbe went down with his audience.

But NATE, which wants the paper scrapped in favour of teacher assessment, insists its format still requires a "skewed" style of teaching, concentrating on pre-set scenes and involving second-guessing of questions. "I just don't think Shakespeare is suitable for that kind of swotting," says general secretary Anne Barnes.

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