Page last updated at 00:41 GMT, Saturday, 24 March 2007

Are school tests on their way out?

By Mike Baker
Education correspondent, BBC News

Mike Baker graphic

Something extraordinary seems to be happening to school tests in England.

It could be the most radical change since the tests began in the early 1990s, when they were still called Sats.

Yet this is a "softly, softly" revolution. The tests appear to be on their way out, at least in the form we know them today. But ministers do not want to give the impression they are easing up on accountability.

Meanwhile others keep letting the cat out of the bag. This week it was the turn of the head of the examinations watchdog, Ken Boston.

He suggested that national tests for all pupils could be phased out within three years and replaced by a test taken by just a small sample of pupils, sufficient to give a national picture of education standards.

The government was not pleased. Ministers insisted that the national tests, taken by all pupils at the end of each key stage, were here to stay.

New focus

Yet the logic of their own plans for a new kind of testing suggests there will be little need to maintain the current tests.

As Sam Tyler, the fictional detective from BBC One's Life on Mars, tries to tell his unreformed 1970s police colleagues, the key to police investigations lies in the details. Well the same is true in investigating what is happening to school tests.

This week, ministers announced a pilot scheme for the "Making Good Progress" project.

It received little attention but this experiment has huge potential for changing not only school tests, but also the whole focus of how schools work and the chances of children who are falling behind.

One reason it received little media attention was that it is complicated. But it is worth making the effort to see where it is heading.

The scheme is all about:

  • "testing pupils when they are ready" not just at seven, 11 and 14
  • Measuring each child's progress year-by-year
  • Providing one-to-one tuition the moment a child falls behind
  • Judging schools by the rate of progress of their pupils
  • Paying schools a 10% premium if they improve their rate of progress.

It would work like this. Instead of preparing pupils for the high stakes tests at the end of each key stage, teachers' focus would be on assessing when a child is able to move up one level in the national curriculum grades.

When they think a child is ready they can put them in for a test that will be set and marked outside the school. They will not have to wait, as now, until pupils reach the end of a key stage at seven, 11 or 14.

This will mean "several shorter, more focused, and more appropriate tests" for each child, rather than one big test at the end of the key stage.

As the government's own consultation document says: "ultimately, these tests might replace end of key stage arrangements".

As a benchmark, schools would be expected to move pupils up two "levels" at each key stage. The measure of each school's success would be the percentage of pupils who managed this rate of progress.

Yet by insisting on having both systems of testing, they risk - once again - an over-load of testing

The government believes so strongly that this is the way forward that it is offering a bonus payment to schools that improve their rate of progress in Maths and English in this way.

It is also offering large sums of money to provide one-to-one tuition to those pupils who are falling behind the expected rate of progress.

Middle class parents who are able to afford individual tuition from qualified teachers know this can be, by far, the most effective strategy for progress.

Extending it to all of those at risk of falling behind could be one of the biggest educational leaps forward in decades.

The scheme is to be piloted in 10 areas of the country over the next two years. If it is successful, it is hard to see why the government would want to keep the existing tests going as well.

After all, the new approach would offer a clear guide to parents of both how their own child is progressing and also the effectiveness of different schools.

There could even be league tables, if the government wanted, with schools ranked not by raw scores but by the percentage of pupils they have managed to progress through two national curriculum levels within each key stage.

So why are ministers so insistent that the current tests will stay?

'Quiet revolutions'

The answer seems to be that they think they still need a measure of absolute achievement as a lever to force up national standards.

Yet by insisting on having both systems of testing, they risk - once again - an over-load of testing.

They could also be throwing away a chance to emphasise that the real measure of a school's teaching is the progress its pupils make, not the absolute level they reach.

The new system will, on its own, require more tests than now, since children will be tested as they go through each national curriculum level not just each key stage.

The extra tests could be justified in that they are shorter and targeted at pupils who are ready for them.

The analogy is the musical instrument grades that pupils take as, and when, they are ready and which are set and marked by external teachers.

Yet to add these new tests whilst keeping the existing tests at seven, 11, and 14 seems odd.

Certainly, some experts believe it is unnecessary to keep the existing tests.

Hence Mr Boston's argument that only a small sample of pupils need to be tested each year to provide a measure of absolute standards across the country.

This one will be fascinating to watch. And as so often in educational change, it is the quiet revolutions that prove the biggest.

School tests: who takes what
06 May 09 |  Education
National school tests 'could end'
21 Mar 07 |  Education
Change on way in tests and tables
04 Jan 07 |  Education

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific