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Conor Ryan: Why we must not ditch national tests

Sunday 23 October 2011 08:53

It was not just the weather that was grim in August. It was hardly a bright month for national testing. With the sacking of ETS, the American company contracted to deliver this year's tests, following marking delays, ministers might wish to draw a line under the sorry fiasco.

But this debate is unlikely to go away. The teaching unions already hope that the crisis will kill the tests, which they have never liked. The National Association of Head Teachers' general secretary, Mick Brookes, says the whole system is "a monolith that is in real danger of collapsing under its own weight".

Even my former No 10 colleague, Matthew Taylor, RSA chief executive and a keen observer of the zeitgeist, identifies an apparently "growing consensus that children are over-examined and that too many schools are drab, joyless, assessment factories."

Lord Sutherland will report on what went wrong in October. However, the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, is already trying out "progress tests", which pupils will sit when they are ready, at a level deemed appropriate by their teachers to their abilities. But let's not forget why we have national tests in the first place. The Conservatives introduced tests at seven, 11 and 14, alongside a national curriculum and more frequent inspections, because of concerns about standards and accountability.

In 1995, less than half of 11-year-olds reached the expected standard in both the English and maths tests. There were big differences between apparently similar schools. This prompted the incoming Labour government to introduce the literacy and numeracy hours, as well as targets linked to the test results.

And testing has helped ensure that the basics are better taught. Spelling, grammar and phonics have made a much-needed comeback, as have maths tables and mental arithmetic.

One in five pupils don't yet make the grade, but 100,000 more children do so each year than was the case in 1997; the proportion making the grade in both subjects is now 72 per cent. Countries without national tests bemoan their absence. In the US, every state sets it own, often flattering its own achievements. In 2005, 89 per cent of Mississippi fourth-graders were rated proficient in reading in the state's own test, which suggested they were the best readers nationally. But when a more rigorous national test was used, they came last, with just 18 per cent making the grade.

Tests allow parents to compare schools on an objective basis. They could accept what schools say is happening: but without external validation, does anyone imagine that there won't be pressures on some schools in a competitive admissions system to exaggerate a little? More recently, tests have also been a great source of data for schools. Their data are used by most teachers to help set ambitious pupil goals, a key to school improvement.

There is a difference between recognising the need for external accountability and believing that the system we have at present is the right one to achieve it. There is a case for some reform; after 13 years, it would be surprising if it were otherwise. With tests at seven now marked by teachers, the only national tests before GCSEs are at 11 and 14, hardly a sign of over-testing. But confining the external tests to maths and English, leaving science to be marked internally, would help with shortages of markers and reduce time spent on external tests, while ensuring accountability in the basics.

And given this year's difficulties, the Government needs to rethink its progress tests, which will involve more, not less, marking and, by only allowing pupils to achieve a particular level in any tests, will cap ambition. This at a time when there has been a worrying dip in high achievers at age 11.

It would make more sense simply to encourage schools to enter able children for the existing national tests a year early. Many schools already enter pupils for Key Stage 3 tests at age 13 rather than 14. Primaries could do something similar with Key Stage 2.

Indeed making early Key Stage 3 tests the norm might free up Year 9 either for a richer curriculum less geared towards exams, with more time for wider cultural activities and acquiring soft skills. But those who say Key Stage 3 doesn't matter ignore its importance in schools that are struggling to improve, where the English and maths results are a vital progress check.

Whatever reforms are introduced, it is crucial we retain externally marked and set testing for every school. Without it, parents and taxpayers would be left bereft of objective accountability, and schools would be left without the information they need to help the many pupils who still don't make the grade.

Conor Ryan was senior education adviser to Tony Blair and David Blunkett.

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