Leading Article: Tests are worth getting right

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The Independent Online
WHEN the Independent polled parents last month, two clear messages emerged about national assessment of 14-year-olds: an overwhelming majority of parents want their children assessed at that age, but they are equally sceptical about the Government's approach. Unfortunately, when the poll was conducted, parents were not in a position to make their own informed judgements about the quality of the tests. Over the next 10 days, they will be able to see the papers for themselves.

John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, was confident that parents would 'wonder what all the fuss was about' when they read the first papers - for English comprehension and writing exercises - released yesterday. Up to a point, he is right. It is hard to imagine that parents could take any serious exception to papers that are no different from those which most adults remember sitting as a matter of routine. The only striking difference is that the Government's tests are more attractively presented. On the evidence of this first paper, it seems strange that English teachers should be so outraged.

Nevertheless, teachers have a legitimate complaint about their increased workload. It will take between 11 and 13 extra hours to mark one set of papers for a class of 27 children, plus the same again for the literature tests scheduled for tomorrow. One way or another, that would carry a cost in lost teaching time. Furthermore, English teachers' opposition was mainly provoked by the pilot tests in literature: we have yet to see the final version of those tests.

Mr Patten has already gone some way towards meeting teachers' concerns. He has asked Sir Ron Dearing, the new chairman of the curriculum and assessment authorities, to find ways of 'streamlining' the tests. Sir Ron does not rule out the possibility of using continuous assessment to measure progress in the study of literature. Best of all, Mr Patten has effectively suspended plans to introduce tests in any subjects other than English, maths, science and technology. Four days of testing each summer is neither an absurd government ambition, nor an onerous duty to impose on schools.

But Mr Patten has lost all credibility with the profession (as evidenced by the hostility of his reception at the National Association of Head Teachers' conference last week). As a consequence, because most parents still prefer to trust their child's teacher more than the minister, he has also sacrificed parental support. His overriding responsibility during the next few months must be to win it back.

Next year's tests should be fashioned in a style with which most teachers feel comfortable. That implies different kinds of tests for different subjects at different ages. Any prospect of league-

tabling results this year is dead: too few schools will be reporting the results for comparisons to have any meaning. The strength of opposition to the tables suggests that Mr Patten would be politically wise to suspend them. The most important purpose of tests is to inform parents and teachers about children's progress. It is going to be hard enough to bed them down. The battle over league tables should be left for another day.