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Martin Curtis: Key Stage 1 and 3 testing in schools

Martin_curtisMartin is a Cambridgeshire County Councillor and Fenland District Councillor, an active school Governor for over 10 years, and is on the candidates list. He also runs Spin Blog.

For some time I have been of the opinion that testing at Key Stage 1 (KS1) and Key Stage 3 (KS3) has lost all merit.  So I suppose it is about time that I put my thoughts in writing in the hope of stimulating some sort of debate within the party.

First, it is important that I set the scene.  At the moment there are four points where testing is carried out in schools.  The first is at the end of the 3rd year in Primary School at the age of 7 (the period up to here is known as Key Stage 1). Historically this was the transition from Infant to Junior School; whilst this still happens in some situations, in the vast majority of cases the child now stays in the same school.  The second test is at the end of Key Stage 2 (KS2); the point when the vast majority of children leave primary education and move into Secondary school (at 11 years old).   This test is the most important measurement and the one which experts and the media alike pay most attention to.  The DfES use these results to produce a set of statistics called PANDA (which stands for Performance and Assessment).  At KS2 this measures the amount of progress that a school’s pupils have made since KS1, comparing progress against schools of a similar type.

In the secondary sector, testing is carried out at the end of Year 9, just before students begin their GCSE courses. The fourth test is of course GCSEs.   

I believe the Conservatives were absolutely right to introduce testing; at the time there was very little knowledge of individual achievement nor of how much progress schools as a whole were making.  But that situation has changed and schools are now using assessment processes to monitor achievement at group and individual level extremely effectively.  I think this shows that testing has worked.

I also believe that it is right to continue testing at the end of KS2.  It seems to me that there is still a need for a formal evaluation of a child’s level of achievement at the point when they progress to Secondary education.  It is also right to use this as the main focal point for monitoring the effectiveness of Primary education.

I am no longer convinced that testing at KS1 or 3 achieves anything – except perhaps to confirm what teachers already know about an individual’s level of achievement.  KS3 doesn’t aid GCSE choice because options are decided before they even take the tests and any information that Government (at local and National level) needs can be obtained from assessment data, with the accuracy of that assessment measured by OFSTED.

As far as KS1 is concerned, the situation is far worse, with the presence of testing actually contributing to a distortion of outcomes in the Primary Sector.   The focus that is placed on KS2 PANDA – measuring progress between KS1 and 2 - means that whatever achievement has taken place in the extremely important first stage of a child’s education is ignored.   This, in effect, punishes schools who have developed particular expertise at KS1 and could actually serve as an inhibitor to the development of such specialism.   In some cases this has led to Primary Schools failing to properly stretch children during KS1 because pushing them too hard may limit progress in KS2 and, as a result, lower their PANDA scores.

Whilst there are still some areas where there are separated infant and junior schools, the vast majority now educate a child from before the age of 5, through to 11.  It therefore seems logical that the main publicised measurement for progress should be based on the whole period that a child is educated in that school.  In fact there is no sense in giving the majority of credence to data that is based on half of the time in a school.  Eliminating KS1 testing will get rid of this distortion and allow whole school measurement.

One issue that arises from this is how to measure an individual’s ability when they enter Primary education.  Whilst it is difficult to measure literacy and numeracy at this point (but not impossible), many schools are already adept at baseline assessment, which takes a more basic view of interpersonal and motor skills; there is no reason why progress cannot be measured using baseline as the starting point.

There are a number of other benefits of abolishing testing at KS1 and KS3; eliminating the considerable amount of time that is currently taken up preparing children for tests will increase the amount of education taking place; reducing the costs of testing could lead to more money (albeit a small amount) being put into schools; and last not least, increase the Conservative Party’s popularity within the teaching profession and amongst parents (many of whom are still opposed to testing, particularly at KS1).

The more I have thought about the abolishment of these tests, the more I find it difficult to justify their continued existence.  If adopted, I believe the suggestion I have put forward will help the Conservatives in taking a bold step towards its aim of reducing state interference, at the same time supporting the raison d’étre for their introduction.  It would also acknowledge and reward the revolution in student assessment that has taken place since testing was introduced and, most importantly, would get rid of a distorted system of measurement in Primary schools.


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