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Chris McGovern: Teachers will game the system so they look good in the new tests

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Many four-year-olds will face ‘baseline assessment’ when they enter reception class in September.  The Government says that it wishes to “improve how we measure primary pupils’ progress”. Although an ‘opt out’ is possible, most toddlers in Government-funded schools are expected to be tested by 2016.

Many teachers are unhappy and a boycott is likely to be agreed at the annual conference of the National Union of Teachers over the Easter weekend. A petition of protest has been organised by The British Association for Early Childhood Education and a cohort of 80 experts and ‘celeb’ commentators on childhood, including Philip Pullman and Michael Rosen, have written a letter of protest to The Guardian. Are these expressions of concern legitimate or are we just hearing another blast from the Blob, the self-interested educational establishment?

One thing, for sure, age four is too young for any reliable standardised mass assessment of pupils. As a head teacher, I recall telling groups of prospective parents at my over-subscribed school that, according to an assessment expert whom I trusted, the most reliable method for assessing young children was to look at the qualifications of the mother! This produced either a look of horror or an expression of self-satisfied contentment on the assembled mums. The dads, of course, wanted to know why their genes counted for less than the mums. They do not, but the truth is that in most cases it is mothers who have the greatest influence on young children in the early, formative years.

I was assessing for Year 1 entry and, to improve reliability, left it as late as possible in the school year –  certainly, later than the new tests now being promoted by the Government. Our assessments used a combination of feeder-school report, ‘interview/discussion’ and simple tasks centred on letter, word, number and shape recognition and sequences. It was, at best, an imprecise ‘science’ and, not infrequently, we invited unsuccessful children to be re-assessed the following year. It was imperfect, but made easier and more reliable by the fact that we were an academic school looking for the more academically able pupils.

The Government’s task is much harder since it not looking to identify an approximate rank order of ability. Its aim is to provide a ‘baseline assessment’ against which to measure individual progress from age four up to age 11, when children take the end of Key Stage 2 SATs tests.

Schools can choose from one of six test providers with each providing a series of one-to-one, teacher-child assessment activities.

Inherent unreliability is inbuilt.  Four-year-olds are especially vulnerable to mood swings and to ‘on-off’ performance. Attainment is likely to be determined mostly by home background and parental input at this young age. Most important of all, though, is that in order to show ‘progress’ in the future, schools will be inclined to mark children ‘down’ at age four.  If you want to show ‘progress’ you need to start from a low base. Since teachers will be in control of the whole process, this will be easily achieved and this is what is going to happen. Teachers will be required to go through a complicated paperwork process in order to demonstrate that their pupils have made progress.  Can they be blamed for ‘playing the system’, for giving bureaucrats what they want?

By not recognising this fundamental flaw in the assessment system, the Government is guilty of breath-taking naivety. It is going to build an entire pupil assessment system on foundations of sand.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovernhttp://www.cre.org.uk
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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