Professor Robin Alexander's findings on national curriculum tests provide compelling evidence for an inquiry into the system operating in primary schools. According to Wynn Harlen of the University of Bristol, as many as one in three children may have been given the wrong levels in their maths and English tests at age 11. The reason, according to the report, is the narrow nature of what the children are being tested on. If they were given different questions about the curriculum, it would be quite possible they would have been awarded a different level.
Therefore, he argues, the tests do not provide reliable enough evidence upon which to base judgments of primary schools' effectiveness or the general level of literacy and numeracy. Far better, the research argues, to draw conclusions from teachers' assessments of their pupils' work throughout the year. This result – coupled with other evidence released by the review group, showing that children are receiving too narrow a curriculum and are bored by being taught to the test – present ministers with a case to answer. To date, ministers have merely cited the increasing numbers of pupils obtaining level four – the required standard – since they came to power in 1997, and emphasized that the whole curriculum apparatus and the tests have been subjected to rigorous independent scrutiny.
Ultimately, it may well be that we still need tests at age 11 to determine primary school pupils' progress, but it is beginning to look as though we should consider whether the existing tests offer sufficient evidence that children are or are not performing as they should. Alternatively, it could be that a move towards teacher assessment of pupils – as has been done with the tests for seven-year-olds – may offer us a better opportunity. The testing regime has been in operation for more than a decade, so the time is ripe for a more thorough review of how it is working. We would hope that the new Commons select committee that is monitoring the work of the department for children, schools and families, which is due to start its work later this month, will investigate the matter. There has been speculation that a review of testing and assessment will be one of its top priorities. Let us hope that this will be confirmed when it meets to decide its course for the near future.