Page last updated at 01:10 GMT, Saturday, 23 February 2008

Parents fail comprehension test

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education reporter

Primary school computer
What does it all mean?

If conspiracy theorists ever got into education, one of the first places that they might point their suspicious fingers is the tangled undergrowth of tests, qualifications and assessment.

They might well ask whether the whole baffling system had been created to be incomprehensible to parents.

Anyone with a child in the last year of primary school in a school in England will already be keenly aware of the Sats tests to be taken in May.

These tests (which as a minor digression are not really called Sats) were never exactly straightforward from a parent's perspective.

But at least we had grown used to catchy descriptions such as Key Stage 2 Level 4 as holding proof of our children's ability.

But this week even more fog was pumped into the subject with the debate over a new type of school test, a kind of son of Sats, known as the "single level test".

'Inappropriate entry'

The results of pilot tests involving 22,000 children were initially delayed, while officials examined the bewildering finding that younger children had got higher marks than older children.

Although "marks" is not the right word, because in these Alice in Wonderland-ish tests, pupils only take them when they are good enough to pass.

There is no mark, because no one who is deemed likely to fail takes them in the first place.

Rather like the arms industry not mentioning killing, these assessment systems avoid the idea of failure.

Pupils have not failed, they have suffered from an "inappropriate entry".

Confused? It's not just the single-level tests that are less than transparent.

This week, Barry Sheerman, chairman of the Commons children, schools and families select committee challenged the Schools Minister Jim Knight to find out how much parents really understood about how schools are assessed and rated.

Primary classroom
The assessment of pupils can be baffling for parents

In particular, he asked about the "contextual value added", known as CVA, scores that are faithfully reproduced in the school league tables.

These are the scores that measure progress by putting the school's results in the context of the pupils and the areas that they serve.

Mr Sheerman suggested that there was no point being accountable if it was done in a way that was incomprehensible to most people.

But Mr Knight put him straight, saying: "I do not think that it is that difficult to understand that in CVA terms, 1,000 is the norm.

"If you are above 1,000, you are adding value better than the norm. If you are below 1,000, you are adding value lower than the norm. If that is all people understand, then it is pretty straightforward."

Right. That's that one sorted. What parent would not find that crystal clear?

Format war

In terms of unnecessary complications, the primary school tests are just the nursery slopes. Secondary and higher education qualifications enter into another realm of the incomprehensible.

The national qualifications framework has nine levels of difficulty. Download the list at level one and there are more than 1,200 different options, including various Key Skills, NVQs and BTec courses.

Each of these abundant level one options are equivalent to GCSE grades D to G. Hold on, did not D to G use to be an "inappropriate entry"?

There will be even more scope for confusion when Diplomas are added to the mix. Will A-levels versus Diplomas become education's first format war? And what about the children who end up with the Betamax version for the rest of their lives?

Qualifications and testing are an industry - and any business has its own jargon. But spare a thought for the pupils, schools and parents who have to make sense of it all.

Here is a selection of your comments:

Apparently this week's open evening is to set my daughters "targets for development" and discuss her "milestones and achievements outside of school". My daughter is...5! Now I'm glad the school takes an interest but I can't help feeling this is all out of proportion. I want her to be happy, and enjoying her classes, not worrying about whether she will pass this test or that milestone. Over scrutinised, over examined and over the top. God help us when she gets a bit older, let's hope she doesn't get over stressed.
Chris, Otley, West Yorks

Many thanks for putting this in clear, simple language. Yes, this has all become an industry - a self-serving conspiracy foisted on us by the educational establishment and their oh-so-eager suppliers. It really is a disgrace. How on earth have the government and the civil service allowed this botch to come into being?
Gareth Robson, Beckenham

I have four children spread across primary and secondary schools. My eldest has just come home with his "report" . He is in Key Stage 3 and generally at level 4, projected to reach generally level 6, has a target of level 7. The national average of his age group will reach level 5 by end of year 9 (just before Key stage 4). I was initially shocked that he appeared to be failing on all subjects and it took many readings to decode what it meant (and I have a Masters Degree). He is simultaneously:
(1) Currently ahead of national average
(2) Forecast to fail his target
(3) Forecast to be at least one level above national average.
I would be delighted to provide a copy of this Noddy land report. And this is from a good normal regular state school!
Donald, Pickering, N Yorks

It really isn't very helpful for the media to keep on peddling the myth that only A*-C grades constitute a 'real' pass at GCSE. If we are, in fact, looking at CVA scores then, for a great number of students, a D, E, F or even G grade is a success.
Doug Belshaw, Doncaster

How glad I am I don't teach in England any more! More and more paper work, less and less contact with students, less and less scope for the individual teacher to tailor his/her classroom to the particular needs to the kids in it and to his/her special skills and interests. And all in the name of "accountability". Except that those to whom teachers are supposed to be accountable can't understand the avalanche of jargonese that descends upon them... I remember one teacher telling me of a father who came in to school with his son's multi-page report. "All I want to know," he said plaintively, "is whether to congratulate him or tell him off..."
Mike Tribe, Madrid, Spain

It's what used to be called 'snow'. An impenetrable blanket of jargon designed to discourage all criticism by rendering any enquirer comatose with boredom.
Gertrude, Lowestoft

Also spare a thought for the teachers who are also completely bewildered by the whole thing and are becoming increasingly fed-up by the endless changes which don't seem to be for the better.
R Brown, Derby

re. "the children who end up with the Betamax" version" - a young friend of mine took an animal care course alongside school based GCSEs in conjunction with a local college, having been told it was equivalent to another GCSE. It was only when signing on for sixth form that she learned it was equivalent to grade D-G only, so despite getting best possible grades in it this extra qualification effectively lowered her average GCSE points score to a level which barred her from returning to the sixth form as she had always intended. Assessors and teachers can have a second go next time and get it right. Most pupils only get one go and can end up disenchanted with the whole qualifications business.
Mary Keighley, Yorkshire

There is a strange sickness spread along the corridors of power and the marbled halls of the Department for Happy Children and Nice Schools that by changing qualifications you change the quality of education. As you point out this forgets that parents and employers take several years to adjust to changes while new courses take a minimum of 3 years to bed down and be made pupil friendly by teachers. I have introduced six new qualifications over the last 15 years and every time we have managed to sort them out and make them interesting they are dumped and a new variation is introduced. Very frustrating for teachers, parents, pupils and employers. If only someone in the government machine would leave schools alone and stop the endless meddling which is destroying our system. The new diploma is a car crash waiting to happen with a byzantine structure of levels, modules, skills etc,. Nobody has explained how schools will move from their present state to cope with it without very large sums of money.
Max Phillips, Ipswich

The problem with contextual value added, is that a school that scores 1001 is hailed as a success, whereas a school that achieves 999 is deemed a failure. No two years' worth of students are the same, and the general attitude of students within a class can have a much bigger impact than anything the school actually does. Teachers could actually teach better in one year but because of student apathy the 'scores' could come out lower. Even one or two students (in a year group of 200) who, for whatever reasons (home life, depression, health), underachieve, can skew a school's rating significantly.
Angela M, Halifax, West Yorks

How can you possibly add negative value to something?! What rubbish, I fear for my daughter going into Year 1.
Alex Horspool, Haltwhistle, Northumberland

I desperately wanted to become a teacher but it's exactly this sort of politicised nonsense in education that put me off ('inappropriate entry'). As you say, jargon is a necessary evil in any sector but to an outsider the qualifications industry is now so labyrinthine it's in danger of disappearing up its own framework.
J Sharp, Newark, Notts

I thought some of these tests were designed to show how well the school was doing, not the pupils. Which ones are which I don't know - does anyone else?
Philippa Sutton, Newcastle upon Tyne

My daughter has managed to get right through primary school without me having any idea as to her level of ability. Her school reports are an outline of the National Curriculum with her name inserted into the appropriate "Slot". The Sats results are alsmost impossible to interpret and I'm a postgraduate so used to reading research!
Hazel, Newcastle

A CVA score is the difference between predicted figure and actual results. This sort of thing is meaningless in the context of real life. I need someone who can do the job, not someone who cannot, but is better than expected.
Ted Peters

There is a basic flaw in a system that puts the same body (the Government) in the two positions of provider of a service and assessor of whether the service is satisfactory. It is only to be expected that the results from Government-designed tests will show that Government-provided education is performing well. That is just human nature. Anyone who really wanted to improve the service would allow a completely independent body to judge its results, or farm out the provision to someone else. The problem presumably is that there is too strong a political lobby against, for example, a system in which the testing was run by the Government but the service was provided by the private sector. However, given that putting those two roles in the same hands is so obviously bound to lead to a poorer result for the children in state education, aren't we forced to conclude that, if there is such a political lobby, it is actually aimed at preventing those children from succeeding?
Adrian Widdowson, Leeds

We home school - life is so much better for home schoolers - none of this nonsense to worry about, no bullying, no post code lottery for getting into schools, no school-run in the morning, holidays whenever you want - superb !
Juice, Edinburgh

Don't forget the equally confusing and entirely separate Scottish system - which has had at least as many revisions and changes recently as down south.
Daniel, Glasgow

When will the Government stop messing with quotas, assessment etc and just concentrate on teaching? Continued grade inflation has made it all pointless anyway. I'm currently recruiting and already bin any CV without straight As at A-Level or A2 (or whatever they are now) - what's the point in all these exams if you can't differentiate children?
Jonathan, London

I understand that new Diplomas in Hairdressing, which will not involve actual cutting of hair, would be "equivalent" to 2 A Levels. Meanwhile, British Airways cabin crew who undergo a period of six months training and experience will gain a NVQ - "equivalent" to 5 GCSEs. How can cabin crew training, which requires very practical skills (including real customer service and Aviation Medical activities involving defibrillation) be worth less than theoretical hairdressing? It's nonsense, isn't it?
Chris King, Fleet

I am working in a FE college and still find the qualifiction system confusing. In my opinion, the post 16 qualifications are more confusing then the primary and secondary school tests. Added to this the terms 'entry level, 'key skills', 'National Qualifications Framework' come into use. The external use of some of these levels is limited, because they used for progression by small steps at below GCSE A to C standard. The term "equivalence" is too broad as for example a Level 2 key skills in numeracy is less demanding than a GCSE in mathematics which is also rated at Level 2. A key skills Level 3 in numeracy is still less demanding than a mathematics GCSE A to C standard. My point is that key skills numeracy and GCSE mathematics are assessing different skills. Both have value but are not direct equilvalents. Confused?
Philip, Preston, Lancashire

D-G at GCSE, whatever people may think of the grade, is a pass, just not sufficient for a "good GCSE" (A*-C). U is a fail, not a D. If these qualifications are equivalent to a poor GCSE pass, that's what they're equivalent to! People would be up in arms about grade deflation if they were worth any more than that.
Jenna Power, Bath

It's no wonder so many people go to university these days, at least a degree means something!
Lindsey, Brighton

With so much hype and gobbledegook over current examinations - should we not be thinking of returning to the reliable (if old fashioned) 11 plus and GCEs? Whilst we are at it, make sure the grammar schools are brought back!
Hazzard, Bournemouth

Pilot progress tests made easier
15 Feb 08 |  Education
New progress test results delayed
22 Jan 08 |  Education
'Testing when ready' gets going
10 Dec 07 |  Education
Johnson rejects tests scrap call
10 Jun 07 |  Education

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

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific