Page last updated at 01:52 GMT, Saturday, 10 January 2009

Warning on replacing Sats tests

By Mike Baker

 Secondary school tests
Tests for 14 year olds have been scrapped
There is a risk that the replacement for the scrapped national tests at age 14 in England will be rushed, untried, and will lead to "unintended consequences".

That is the fear of teachers' leaders and education experts, from right across the UK, who gathered on Friday to offer advice to the government's "expert group", which is due to recommend a replacement for the tests by next month.

The meeting, which included leading assessment experts from England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, heard that the government's sudden abolition of the tests has left a large "void" for schools and parents.

But speakers feared there was a political imperative to fill that void too quickly. One head teacher's leader said schools did not want "a headlong rush into another half-baked system that does not work".

It was in October 2008, following the problems with last summer's test marking, that the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, announced the immediate scrapping of the Key Stage 3 national tests.

At the same time, he appointed an expert group to advise how the tests should be replaced by "improved teacher assessments", more regular reporting to parents of pupils in years 7, 8 and 9, and national-level sampling, so parents can know what is happening to year-on-year overall standards.

Mr Balls' remit did not appear to offer the option of having no assessment at all at age 14.

International survey

The seminar of about 30 experts and teachers' leaders, including a member of the expert group, and government advisers, met under Chatham House rules, which means their comments can be reported but not attributed. They will be sending their conclusions to the expert group.

Several speakers at the seminar complained that the government seemed determined to rush into a new system without any proper or open-minded trialling of different assessment systems.

On the question of testing a national sample of students, one proposal was to simply adopt the existing international surveys, which already rank countries on their performance in maths, science and literacy.

It emerged that this option has received serious consideration within government. Indeed some countries rely entirely on these international surveys and have no national assessments of their own.

However several objections were raised to this approach, including the fact that the tests do not align with the national curriculum and national governments have only limited influence over the nature of the test questions.

Speakers also noted that the only international survey that tests pupils at 14 is the Trends in International Maths and Science Study (TIMMS), which does not cover literacy and language.

However one expert government adviser suggested it was possible to join other English-speaking countries to produce an international literacy test.

Sample of pupils

A second option was to bring back the Assessment and Performance Unit, which conducted national sample tests in England between 1979 and 1989.

But speakers felt this was no longer fit for purpose as it pre-dated the national curriculum and, since it involved testing just a few pupils in lots of schools, it had been very disruptive.

A third option was to follow Scotland. The Scottish Survey of Achievement is designed to monitor performance nationally using a mixture of written tests, practical exams, and teacher assessments on a sample of 10,000 pupils of each age.

However some felt the Scottish system had not worked as well as expected.

Meanwhile, a leading independent research body, the National Foundation for Educational Research presented a soon-to-be-published report giving its recommendations for a national sampling system.

It said it was vital the new system should have a narrowly defined purpose, specifically to monitor changes to standards over time and to identify strengths and weaknesses across the curriculum.

It recommended the sample testing should not be used to compare standards in different local authorities or schools and that it should be kept as "low stakes" as possible to avoid teaching-to-the test or doubts about validity.

Looking beyond the issue of national sampling, most agreed there was still a need for universal assessment at 14 so reports could be made to parents and so teachers could check on pupil progress.

Suggestions included using the existing Key Stage 3 tests in an optional basis, employing commercial tests, and combining teacher assessments with a national 'bank' of testing materials.

Another option, suggested by some, was to follow the lead of Wales where the national tests have been replaced by compulsory teacher assessments.

The Welsh system has the advantage that these cover a much wider range of subjects than just English (or Welsh), maths and science.

Although the seminar failed to back any single approach it strongly urged government to ensure the replacements for the tests at 14 should not be about school- or teacher-accountability but should focus on "what helped teachers to do a better job in the classroom".

The greatest fear expressed by the seminar was of another big new system that would be rushed in with unintended consequences.

All eyes now turn to the expert group, which must produce a solution that fits the government's terms of reference within the next few weeks. Watch this space.

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