Page last updated at 17:30 GMT, Monday, 22 December 2008

Four in five failed trial tests

By Gary Eason
Education editor, BBC News website

test candidate
No longer will 14-year-olds have to take national tests

Fewer than one secondary pupil in five passed the first pilot of tests that might have replaced England's Sats for 14-year-olds - now scrapped altogether.

An evaluation for the Department for Children, Schools and Families gave the pass rate in the "single level tests" as 19% overall, 12% in maths.

However in primary schools, 65% passed the first trial tests, which also covered reading and writing.

Papers were made easier for the next pilot, prompting "dumbing down" fears.

Single level tests aim to check whether pupils are working at the national curriculum level at which their teachers have assessed them.

So they take the test when the pupil is believed to be ready - rather than in specific age groups - and either pass or fail.

This is the opposite of the conventional national curriculum tests or "Sats", which incorporate questions at a range of levels.

'Demoralised'

The evaluation by consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers says the new type of tests could have "a positive impact on pupil engagement".

The perceived dumbing down of the tests could seriously erode the value of the pilot
School governor quoted in report

The consultants' report says this "was linked to pupils sitting tests at their level and therefore not being demoralised by taking tests which may include questions above their level which they find more difficult to answer (as is possible in a multi-level test)".

The corollary is they did not experience "warm up" questions, which is one of the reasons put forward for the poor performance in the first pilot in December 2007.

This was changed for the June pilot so the questions were "ramped" in difficulty.

And, crucially, the expectation was lowered from pupils' "working securely" at a national curriculum level, to just having to be over the level threshold - as with the Sats.

Lack of distinction

Some questions were even common to tests at different levels - which the report says raised concerns among some of those involved.

It says: "Some respondents were concerned about the introduction of common items in mathematics papers of different levels.

"A minority of interviewees also considered that there was not enough distinction between Level 3 and Level 4 papers in reading and writing in particular.

"A minority of school-based respondents and two of the 10 [local authority] pilot leaders also explicitly noted broader worries that this showed the erosion of the principle of single level testing and a 'dumbing' down of the papers."

One primary school governor commented: "The perceived dumbing down of the tests could seriously erode the value of the pilot."

It appears some pupils had been entered for the December tests before they were ready.

But three quarters of the pupils who took part felt the questions had been at about the right level of difficulty - in both the December and the June pilots.

Scrapped

Following the changes the pass rate among primary school children rose in June from 65% to 88%.

The emerging evidence ... is encouraging but it is too early to decide to proceed nationally
Schools Minister Jim Knight

But in secondary schools, the report says the National Assessment Agency has been "unable to set a level for these pupils" so no Key Stage 3 pass rates could be given.

On 14 October Schools Secretary Ed Balls - who had until then been bullish about single level tests replacing Sats - announced that they would no longer be trialled at Key Stage 3.

That aspect of his announcement was drowned out by his simultaneous decision to scrap Key Stage 3 testing in England altogether.

His decision followed this year's marking fiasco, but surprised many because it pre-empted the outcome of the inquiry he had commissioned into what had gone wrong.

The Key Stage 2 tests, taken by pupils as they finish primary school, continue, as does piloting of the single level tests for those pupils.

As recently as September, Mr Balls hinted in an interview that the single level tests might replace Sats perhaps by 2010.

But as the consultants' evaluation was published, Schools Minister Jim Knight said it had been made clear that Sats tests for 11-year-olds were "here to stay".

Paddington Bear

Mr Knight said: "The emerging evidence published today is encouraging but it is too early to decide to proceed nationally. We are still testing out the tests and will continue to carefully monitor and evaluate the trial over the next year."

The head of the Association of School and College Leaders, John Dunford, said the reason all Key Stage 3 tests had been scrapped was that the department had come to realise there were severe technical problems about children of different ages doing tests at the same level.

"My caricature is you can get a Level 3 by doing Paddington Bear well or Hamlet badly," he said.

"They have wisely not proceeded with the single level tests at Key Stage 3 and it would be sensible to abolish the same idea at Key Stage 2.

"It will lead to more teaching for the test and create a constant focus on testing rather than on what should be learnt."



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