By Trevor Fisher, 13.10.13
The Coalition primary proposals for testing children launched on July 17th and closed 11th October (Primary Assessment and Accountability under the New National Curriculum) – is in one sense a continuation of old policies on testing. However new features are worse, namely, a new labeling of children into “secondary ready” or not, with testing at 11 threatening a new 11 plus style division of children into sheep and goats. The test results are proposed to be divided into ten sub groups which will scapegoat most children at age eleven. There are thus real dangers that children will be written off before they are half way through compulsory schooling. Sadly there was no major campaign before the close date of 11th October.
While the driver of primary practice is believed to be the National Curriculum, this is not so. Academies do not do the National Curriculum, but the new testing regime clearly occupies that role. The proposals have a blinkered focus on new tests of Maths and English. For example;
“We propose that statutory national curriculum tests should continue in English and Maths at the end of key stages 1 and 2. The STA* will develop new National Curriculum tests”.
The Standards and Testing Agency (STA) is under direct political control. The myth of autonomy is undermined by these developments.
Raising the Bar – at GCSE and Primary
The new tests are designed like GCSEs to be harder than previous Key Stage 2 tests. the policy seeks to drive up standards by “raising the bar”.. crucially para 2.2 states, unargued, that;
“The new national curriculum tests will more demanding.. This will ensure that pupils who clear the bar are genuinely ready to succeed in secondary education. We propose to report the national curriculum test results using a scaled score, and compare pupils against the national cohort by decile” (emphasis added).
As with exam reform, changes will not be trialled.
The flaws in the proposals
(i) The concept of ‘Secondary Ready’
The changes rest on a new and unargued concept – that children must be “secondary ready”. This means ready to pass the new and harder tests at the end of Key Stage 2. The concept is scandalously ill defined, but para 1.3 states;
“We will set the definition of secondary readiness so that it genuinely means that pupils are on track to succeed at secondary school.”
This is defined only in statistical terms. It does not mean any real preparation for secondary education, and indeed is designed to fail significant numbers of pupils. The document argues;
“the new national curriculum creates genuine opportunities for greater school autonomy over curriculum and assessment”
which is only true for Academies and Free Schools (para 1.10 states their ‘freedoms’). But these freedoms in practice will not apply to even these schools..Para 4.8 states these need;
“to show not just whether a pupil has met the secondary readiness standard but also how well…. We propose to report his attainment using a scaled score”, (ie a number) and “We propose to use a scaled score of 100 as the secondary ready standard”.
The methodology is not spelt out nor the implications of this approach discussed, and there is no explanation of how the scores are derived.
(ii) A policy that builds in failure- the new 11-plus.
There is no evidence that these tests will work. Indeed, given the tests will be harder than the existing Level 2 tests, it is quite conceivable that more children than anticipated will fail them.
The technical issues are overshadowed by the assumption that schools can be forced, by ‘raising the bar’ to achieve higher standards by government diktat, primarily by the testing regime. Nick Clegg announced the policy arguing;
“For children to achieve their potential we need to raise the bar- in terms of tests, pass marks and minimum standards”. (Raising Ambitions and standards for primary schools – DFE press release 17th July 2013).
Issues of teaching and actual practice in schools are not addressed, the imposition of a testing culture alone being held to raise standards. This theory underlies the exam and test reforms of the government at both primary and secondary level, with GCSE and A level reforms also being untested. It is clear the government is playing Russian roulette with exams and tests. However this is very much the Lib Dems at work, seeking to justify the Pupil Premium. The key point is the following paragraph;
“6.8 With this extra support very few pupils should leave school without being secondary ready. We therefore propose a new requirement that 85% of pupils should meet the secondary readiness standard in all the floor standard measures… this standard challenges the assumption that some pupils cannot be secondary ready after seven years of school. At the same time it allows some flexibility to recognise that a small number of pupils may not meet the expectations in the curriculum because of their particular needs”
Clegg’s argument in the press release quoted states
“this is a high bar but with more money to help children over it.”
There is no evidence that the pupil premium makes any difference, and without targeting the finance the policy cannot even reach first base. Investigating the pupil premium is long overdue – and perhaps can be linked to the policy of raising the bar.
However the big problem is the 85%. While it is impossible to know if this is accurate given there is no data, it is totally unacceptable for government to set a new standard for preparation for secondary school which it expects 15% of pupils to fail. Not since the eleven plus has government set a standard expecting significant numbers of pupils to fail. The most odious aspect of the document is that it expects and is setting up pupils to fail. However even those who pass will be damaged as set out below.
(iii) Divide and Rule.
Para 2.2 noted above talked of dividing children into deciles, 10% slices of the cohort measured by a crude statistic. The policy is spelt out in detail in paras 4.8 to 4.13. para 4.8 defining a measure to be refined by the STA involving
“a scale from 80 to 130. We propose to use a scaled score of 100 as the secondary ready standard.”
This is arbitrary, and there is no rationale for a scale from 80-130 as the top and bottom limits are chosen without justification.
Children are to be compared to each other in a dog eat dog world, and it is not impossible that the standard could actually drop since there are no standard measures set out. para 4.10 shows that children are ONLY being compared to other children, thus
“4.10. …the scaled scores for each pupil at Key stage 2 would be compared with other pupils in their cohort, we propose to report each pupil’s ranking in the national cohort by decile (ie 10% of the cohort)…..
“4.12 …the combination of scaled score, decile ranking and progress measures will provide clear and detailed information on how each pupil has performed.
At age 11, every child in England will be branded 1-10. Watch out for an increase in school phobia and cyber bullying. It is worse than the eleven plus. With the old system passes left one in five or more clutching the passport to a future. The other four in five had the same expectations and education. Now children would be ranked with only one in ten guaranteed life at the top in an increasingly viscous job market. The other 90 per cent have a dubious future, and know it from age 11.
*Standards and Testing Agency