LEADING ARTICLE : A beginning, not an end

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The Independent Online
Today, 624,000 11-year-olds outside Scotland will embark on a week of national curriculum testing in English, maths and science, the first to be undertaken by their age group. They might be asked to name the parts of a flower, to explain why puddles disappear in dry weather and to do some simple arithmetic. They will also be tested on their reading and writing skills and the very brightest will take extra papers in maths and science.

For many pupils the experience will be a positive one. It will allow them to recap on what they have learnt since the age of seven - and it will give their parents important information to supplement their teachers' assessments of their abilities. Information about children can also be useful for their new schools, bedding them down into an appropriate pattern of learning more quickly. The results of the tests will also allow schools' own performances to be monitored and will permit questions to be asked if pupils' scores do not seem to match their abilities.

But there are dangers in testing such young pupils on their knowledge in this way. Already there are signs that some classes of 11-year-olds have spent most of their time in recent weeks practising for the tests. Parents have bought 40,000 copies of the preparation papers produced by one commercial publisher.

Now, there is no harm in a little revision, but there can be drawbacks. In Northern Ireland, where similar tests are used to select entrants to grammar schools, cramming and coaching for them are common. Every corner shop sells practice papers and the market for personal tutors is booming. Children spend their summer holidays preparing for tests in October and November, and schools start preparing straight after Easter.

This may not be the best way to inspire and enlighten an 11-year-old; bright pupils may become bored and slower learners disheartened. It is possible that English and Welsh schools, relieved of the pressure to win places in a selective secondary system, will not follow the example of their Northern Ireland counterparts. But if these tests are found to be distorting pupils' education, leading to weeks of rote learning or to a rush for private tuition by worried parents, then they will not be achieving their objectives.

Parents and teachers must remember that these tests are just one way of charting progress. As much information can be gained through rigorous classroom assessment of their children as through raw test scores. A balance needs to be struck between the natural - and healthy - desire for your child to do well in a test; and the broader objective of using the tests as the beginning, not the end, of a conversation about education.