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Value of pupil tests 'is finely balanced': Inspectors say cost and complexity undermines benefits to schools

THE COSTS and complexity of testing children in England are in danger of outweighing the benefits, the schools inspectorate warns today.

The Office for Standards in Education, Ofsted, is convinced that national tests for 7- and 14- year-olds are producing tangible improvements in educational standards, but its report also notes that some schools are beginning to 'teach to the test'.

At a time when teachers are threatening to boycott key stage three tests for 14-year-olds, ministers will welcome the inspectors' finding that key stage one tests for seven-year-olds are now firmly established. But the report, Assessment, Recording and Reporting, stresses the importance of teacher confidence if the pupil assessments are to be valid.

Teaching unions will point to the conclusion that at both stages 'the burden of assessment and reporting on many teachers are considerable and growing as new subjects are introduced'.

The growing expertise of infant teachers in assessing children's progress is praised, but the inspectors found few schools made good use of the information amassed from the Standard Assessment Tasks (Sats). They criticise the quality of assessment at key stage three in secondary and middle schools, where the norm is 'weak'. Teachers' view that the 1992 pilot tests told them nothing new about their pupils was 'misguided', the inspectors say.

The cost of assessment and testing, including teachers' time, have been considerable and increased significantly, according to the report, one of four published today on the progress of implementing the national curriculum.

'But the improvements in educational standards are also tangible; in higher expectations of what pupils can and should achieve; in better planning and preparation; in ensuring broader curricular coverage.

'This year, however, and for the first time, the benefits and costs are finely balanced. There are some clearly discernible signs that the impact of 'teaching to the test' and the complexities of the assessment requirements could lead to a distortion of the positive relationship between teaching, learning and assessment,' according to Ofsted, which is headed by Stewart Sutherland, HM Chief Inspector of Schools. The report concedes some of the teachers' criticisms were sound.

Looking at the impact of the national curriculum on children with special educational needs, Ofsted found primary schools mounted a higher proportion of good or satisfactory lessons for them than either special schools or secondaries. But in all schools, the lessons and work of these children deteriorated as the school year progressed and the inspectors say schools need to improve planning.

Making history and geography specific subjects in the national curriculum instead of just part of broad-based topics has presented primary schools with a challenge.

Assessment, Recording and Reporting: Third Year, 1991-92; Special Needs and the National Curriculum 1991-92; History Key Stages 1, 2 and 3: First Year 1991-92; Geography Key Stages 1,2 and 3: First Year 1991-92; Office for Standards in Education; pounds 3.50 each from HMSO.