Page last updated at 08:33 GMT, Thursday, 10 May 2007 09:33 UK

Schools repeatedly testing pupils

By Gary Eason
Education editor, BBC News website

boy preparing to take test
Children in the UK are the most tested in the world

A starter for 10: what are Alis, Ye11is, MidYis, InCas and Pips?

You have probably heard of Sats - and if you're stuck on the others that may give you a clue - but Cats?

The first bunch are school tests produced by Durham University's Curriculum, Evaluation and Management Centre.

Ye11is, for example, is the Year 11 Information System, currently taken by about 200,000 students in more than 1,200 secondary schools, which then have a baseline against which to track their progress to GCSE exams.

The centre is inviting schools to try out yet another: Sosca (Secondary On Screen Curriculum Assessments), which are new curriculum-based tests in reading, maths and science for pupils at the end of Year 9 or S2, to be launched next year.

STATUTORY TESTS IN ENGLAND
Key Stage 2 (Year 6): Mon 14 - Fri 18 May
Key Stage 3 (Year 9): Tues 8 - Fri 11 May
Year 7 progress tests: Mon 14 - Fri 18 May

InCas (Interactive Computerised Assessment System) is a personalised diagnostic test for primary pupils in the UK.

Centre director Professor Peter Tymms estimates that its materials are used in about 4,000 primary schools and half of all secondary schools.

They measure not only attainment but also attitudes - for example, in each GCSE subject, how do children feel about it, do they like it, how much homework do they get?

The emphasis is on diagnosing in some detail how different children are learning, in order to help their teachers do their jobs better.

This is all the more important now in light of the official emphasis on personalising learning, which Prof Tymms says good teachers have always sought to do.

Scrutiny

But the Sats at the end of Key Stage 2 and 3, which in the UK are now compulsory only in England, are different.

"Key stage tests are there to hold the school to account, that was their original purpose and main function."

After all, tests children take as they leave primary school are not going to help it improve their learning.

Instead they hold it up to public scrutiny in the government's performance tables.

Cats are cognitive abilities tests produced by nferNelson and are more like the 11-plus tests children in many areas still take for entry to grammar schools.

Schools are so keen on measuring children's progress they not only administer the statutory tests, they spend considerable sums of money on official optional ones for the years in between.

The National Assessment Agency within England's Qualifications and Curriculum Authority administers the statutory national curriculum tests, popularly known as Sats.

But it also produces progress tests for Years 3, 4 and 5, and for children who began secondary school without having reached the attainment level expected at the end of primary school (Level 4).

A spokesman told the BBC News website that this year 80% of England's primary schools are using these optional papers - at a cost of about 5 per pack of 10 for each subject.

About 40% of secondary schools are using the Year 7 and 8 progress tests for low achievers.

Boycott

It is all a far cry from 2003, which was a heady time for those opposed to the mandatory testing of children in England.

"Complaints grow over school tests" and "Teachers denounce national tests" ran the headlines.

"I and a number of other parents are on the verge of refusing to let our children take their Sats," one parent said.

A primary school head teacher told his association annual conference tests were "a crime against children".

Dozens of children's authors complained that the tests distorted the curriculum.

The biggest schoolteachers' union, the National Union of Teachers, voted to ballot its members on a mass boycott.

But this month, the latest mandatory tests are going ahead as they still do every year.

So what happened?

Changes

The proposed NUT boycott failed to win the support of the membership, in sufficient numbers anyway.

Under the union's rules it needed at least 51,866 votes - but attracted the backing of only 30,452. Another 4,875 members voted against. Only about a third of ballot papers were returned.

And one of the main causes of complaint, the testing of children aged six and seven, at the end of their first two years of compulsory education, was already being changed.

The Key Stage 1 progress measures now rely primarily on teachers' assessments of their charges' attainments, informed if they wish by testing.

But the fact is schools like tests.

Snapshot

A year ago the new general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, Mick Brookes, suggested to his members at their annual conference that they could disrupt this year's tests across England by asking parents to send their children in late.

It has come to nothing, and Mr Brookes now accepts after having spoken to members around the country that they are in no mind to do such a thing.

Mick Brookes
Mick Brookes believes people are losing patience
"There were a few enthusiasts but most colleagues didn't want to do that. They think it's a good snapshot of whether their teacher assessments are correct," he said.

"It's what's done with them in the league tables that's the problem."

So instead the union has set up an inquiry into the system.

But Mr Brookes said he was not surprised that so many schools were using so many optional tests.

"People want to have a concrete idea and using tests for assessment for learning purposes is something schools have been doing forever," he said.

The tests provided nationally benchmarked checks that identified strengths and weaknesses within a school.

Patience

This is just what the Department for Education and Skills itself says - that tests provide valuable objective evidence which helps inform further improvements to teaching and learning.

But Mr Brookes believes the government's routinely repeated "tests are here to stay" cannot hold.

"If the government keeps saying 'this is not negotiable', sooner or later people are going to run out of patience," he said.

They were beginning to connect constant testing and league tables with other issues such as misbehaviour and truancy.

It was no coincidence that the two countries at the bottom of the recent Unicef appraisal of children's well-being were those with the most testing, the USA and the UK - specifically England, he said.



SEE ALSO
School tests: who takes what
10 Nov 04 |  Education
Tests 'reduce pupils to widgets'
04 May 07 |  Education
Schools are now 'exam factories'
01 May 07 |  Education
School tests to face shake-up
08 Jan 07 |  Education
School test 'should be optional'
05 Jan 07 |  Education
Parents 'may block school tests'
30 Apr 06 |  Education

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