Conor Ryan: Change primary tests – but don't scrap them

Thursday 12 February 2009 01:00

National tests are on the critical list. Lord Sutherland's damning report about last summer's tests saw the Key Stage 3 tests for 14-year-olds scrapped. And the Government has been piloting shorter primary tests that pupils can take when they are ready. Government plans for a new school report card for parents, including test results and Ofsted inspections, would see each school graded on an A to E scale.

Some teachers' leaders regard the abolition of Key Stage 3 as a stepping stone to the abolition of the primary school tests. But the abolition of externally marked Key Stage 1 tests for seven-year-olds in 2005 has already seen results dip, as the limited pressure on schools that went with those tests has eased. The scrapping of the more important Key Stage 2 tests could lead to a bigger decline.

Moreover, accountability has contributed to real improvements. The proportion of 11-year-olds reaching the expected standard at Key Stage 2 has risen from 49 per cent in English and 45 per cent in maths in 1995 to 81 and 78 per cent last year. That improvement – which has been even faster in many inner-city schools as a result of minimum standards through floor targets – has coincided with national tests, Ofsted inspections and the publication of school-level results.

Just as important, their publication has given teachers invaluable data that they can use to ensure that they are getting the most out of their pupils. So it is good that the Government has said that it remains committed to externally set and marked tests at Key Stage 2. Indeed, they are likely to be a key part of the new report card.

There has clearly been a problem, however, with the marking of so many test papers. Qualifications and Curriculum Authority boss Dr Ken Boston, who resigned as the Sutherland report was published, said that he couldn't guarantee that this year's tests would be problem-free despite the sacking of ETS, the company whose project management Sutherland said was not fit for purpose.

This is one reason why the Government has been trying out alternative tests set at a single level of ability. In theory, a pupil who is good at English could do his or her level 4 test at age nine and sit a level 5 test a year or two later. The aggregate of the highest achievements of each pupil would appear in the league tables, and all pupils would be tested at least once in primary school.

Pupils are tested this way in music, taking higher levels as their ability and confidence grows. But there are potential pitfalls in applying the system to English and maths. While the Government has decreed the expected level for pupils to be level 4 – a standard reached by around four in five pupils – brighter pupils are perfectly capable of getting a level 5. They can do so at present simply by doing better on the same test paper.

Last year's tests, however, saw a worrying dip in the proportion of pupils reaching that higher standard. And there would be little incentive for schools to enter pupils for separate level 5 tests in future once they had got the level 4 on which schools are judged. Able pupils might not be stretched. So, even if pupils do sit the tests early, they should not be prevented from scoring at a higher level simply because the tests are drawn too narrowly. And schools that get large numbers of pupils to level 5 should get league table recognition.

That still leaves a question over the nature of the tests at age 11. The critics may have a point when they say that too much is being tested. There is a good case for reducing marking pressure by confining external marking to English and maths, leaving science to internal assessment. Those basics are clearly the most important subjects, as is now recognised at GCSE.

Others propose computerising the marking. Tom Burkard, of the Centre for Policy Studies, has argued for essay questions to be replaced by multiple choice questions marked by computer. They would be cheaper and more accurate, and make teaching to the test harder. The Government should certainly consider this for grammar, spelling and arithmetic. But schools must also develop pupils' writing abilities if they are to produce coherent letters, for example, skills that businesses value, and some way needs to be found to test those skills too.

Whatever happens, the problems with the 2008 tests – and any consequent difficulties with the 2009 tests – cannot be the excuse for their complete demise. By all means change the tests and reduce the marking burden, but let's not abandon accountability.

The writer, a former senior education adviser to Tony Blair and David Blunkett, blogs at

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