Grammar tests will not help, say teachers

Schools denounce new exams as politically motivated
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The Independent Online
Fourteen-year-olds will be asked to identify adverbial phases and subordinate clauses in new tests released yesterday and designed to promote the teaching of formal grammar.

In spelling, pupils will be asked to spot misspellings of words such as "concentration" and "essential" and in punctuation they will be required to explain the use of apostrophes and paragraphs.

There will also be new 20-minute mental arithmetic tests for both 11- and 14-year-olds in which pupils will be given five seconds to write, for example, four-fifths as a decimal and to increase pounds 60 by 5 per cent.

The questions will be read out on a tape by a BBC continuity announcer or by the class teacher. Both sets of tests will be piloted in schools next term and may be compulsory next year.

English teachers yesterday described the grammar tests as "politically motivated" and said they would do nothing to improve pupils' grammar.

Dr Nick Tate, chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, which released the sample tests, said that they were being introduced because of concern among employers, politicians and the public about "a pervasive sloppiness in people's writing." He said: "We should be moving into an era of zero tolerance of poor punctuation, bad spelling and weak grammar."

The 50-minute English test will involve changing a noun, such as force, into an adverb or an adjective using a suffix and linking simple sentences together to make one logically ordered complex one.

There will be some questions which relate to literary criticism. For example, pupils may be asked to say how particular adverbs add to the meaning of a passage.

Dr Tate said good schools were already teaching pupils in a way which would enable them to succeed in the tests but evidence from national tests for 14-year-olds suggested some, possibly many, were not.

Some teachers would need retraining. The authority's survey of teachers' confidence about teaching grammar shows that they feel confident about paragraphing and using nouns, verbs and adjectives but less so about sentence structure.

Anne Barnes, general secretary of the National Association for the Teaching of English, said: "These are appalling tests. We have not focused enough on teaching children about grammar but the tests are a politically motivated distraction.

"There is too much emphasis on using the right terminology and correcting words is a very hit-and-miss way of teaching spelling.

"The tests will mean that children who are good at learning grammatical rules do better than those who can write expressively."

The association has advised all schools to think carefully before agreeing to take part in the pilot scheme.

So far only 30 per cent of secondary schools have volunteered for the English pilot tests whereas 74 per cent have volunteered for the mental arithmetic tests.

Sixty per cent of primary schools have asked to take part in the 11-year- old arithmetic tests which will have 28 questions.

All the tests will be marked externally.

A test too far

You have 10 seconds to work out the answers.

Write as a decimal, seven divided by 25.

What is three divided by nought point nought one?

These are two of the sample questions in the new mental arithmetic tests for 14-year-olds that I failed to answer yesterday. Overall, I scored only half marks.

What is the explanation? Is it that my primary education in the Fifties has failed me lamentably? If so, that must represent a vote of no confidence in the traditional methods used in those days and cast doubt on the tests themselves: they are meant to be a return to the good old days.

Is it that I am female? (Male colleagues from other newspapers did considerably better in the test set for us by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority.) Perish the sexist thought.

Is it my great age (47)? The whipper-snappers came top and I don't know, if I ever knew, what a prime number is. But others of around my age were close on their heels.

Perhaps it is simply that I cannot see why I should ever find it necessary to write seven divided by 25 as a decimal. In case I do, however, the answers, after recourse to a calculator, are 0.28 and 300.