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Monday, 3 April, 2000, 18:03 GMT 19:03 UK
Tests 'barrier' for bright pupils
exam room
Are pupils being held back by tests?
By Alison Stenlake

A senior member of England's largest exam board is calling for an end to compulsory national testing at 14.

And he says the government's policy of encouraging more tests in the early years of secondary schooling is wrong.

Dr Ron McLone, Director of Policy at OCR, believes that Key Stage 3 testing in Year 9, when pupils are 14, holds back the brightest students.

He argues this is because schools concentrating on achieving good national test results are reluctant to let students start their GCSE courses a year early.

He says the system would work better if a lower standard test was introduced for everyone a year earlier, in year 8, when pupils are 13.

Schools are focusing everything on the national tests, and don't want pupils to be distracted by GCSE courses

Dr Ron McLone
And he is calling on the government to rethink its testing policy, which he says will soon see secondary school pupils overloaded with tests - at 11, 12, 13, 14, and then GCSEs at 16.

"Everything is working around the tests at 14," Dr McLone said in an interveiw with BBC News Online.

"Because they are compulsory, schools are focusing on them, which means pupils are not being allowed to start their GCSEs early and sit them at 15, which used to be the case.

"That option is still available to independent schools, but it used to apply to state schools as well.

Ron McLone
Dr Ron McLone: "There is too much standardised testing"
"The brightest pupils should have the opportunity to sit some GCSEs early, and then take some more, or some AS-levels.

"Now schools are focusing everything on the national tests, and don't want pupils to be distracted by GCSE courses.

"If the tests were sat at 13, it would free up brighter pupils to go on to start their GCSE courses early, and give the other pupils an extra year to prepare for the start of GCSEs."

Earlier this year, the Education Secretary, David Blunkett, announced the introduction of voluntary tests in English, maths and science for pupils aged 12 and 13, as well as those currently taking place at 11 and 14.

'Over the top'

The tests are aimed at improving standards in the early years of secondary education, when Mr Blunkett said "too little was expected" of pupils.

Teachers' unions did not welcome the announcement, saying that what was described as "voluntary" would soon become compulsory.

Children of 13 and 14 have all the problems of puberty to go through. Do they really need the added pressure of tests?

NUT spokeswoman
Dr McLone agrees, calling the increasing quota of tests "over the top".

"There is too much standardised testing. Everyone is put through the same series of tests whether they are appropriate or not.

"They don't lead to qualifications, the kids don't really get anything at the end of it, and the schools don't believe the tests meet their needs."

'Diagnostic tool'

A spokesman for the Education Department said that schools found tests to be a "valuable diagnostic tool", and that there was a "huge uptake" of the optional tests currently available to schools.

He added that the question of national tests preventing bright pupils from taking GCSEs a year early was "not really an issue", as the brightest pupils could be accelerated forward a year at school, taking the Key Stage 3 tests at 13, and starting their GCSE courses at 14.

But Dr McLone countered that more flexibility was needed, so that pupils could sit GCSEs early without having to join a higher year group with older pupils.

'Nefarious purposes'

A spokeswoman for the National Union of Teachers said there "did seem to be a problem" with pupils being overloaded with tests.

"The problem is the use to which the tests are being put," she said.

"If they're being used to inform teachers of pupils' development and weaknesses then they're useful, but not if they're being used for some nefarious purposes, such as to determine which schools children go to at 11, as a substitute for the 11-plus.

"Schools do their own kind of low-key tests that they use, but the situation becomes different when they are a requirement pushed onto schools by the government.

"They have a greater level of prescription than the non-statutory tests used by schools themselves.

"Kids can be put under a great deal of pressure by parents over the tests, and by government decrees. To put a child under enormous pressure or stress is not helpful.

"Children of 13 and 14 have all the problems of puberty to go through. Do they really need the added pressure of tests?"

  • The OCR examining board, together with the Edexcel board, has been criticised by government advisers for failing to respond quickly enough to appeals over results.

    The boards fell significantly short of the 30-day target for A-level re-marks agreed with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

    QCA chief executive Dr Nick Tate said it was clear they must "substantially improve the service they provide to schools, colleges and candidates".

    Both the boards stressed that inquiries about results represented only a small proportion of total entries, but acknowledged they could improve their service.

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    See also:

    03 Jan 00 | Education
    Teenagers to sit more tests
    31 Jul 99 | Education
    UK students face testing times
    27 Jul 99 | Education
    Ban exam 'abuse' says teacher
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