Why not try finding out about the problem?

Why not try waking up screaming after a recurrent nightmare in which you ride a white camel whilst being pursued by bees who are suffering with CCD?

I’ve spent a good part of today exploring the 2016 Key Stage 2 National Curriculum Tests for Reading, Spelling and Grammar. 

This was in part because I was intrigued by the unrest about a number of changes to the curriculum, assessment and testing model this year. In particular, I was interested to see what all the fuss was about in terms of the level of challenge in the reading paper. Mostly though, as a secondary English teacher and Vice Principal of an all through academy, my motive was to get my head around what we might glean from the data we receive about our 2016 Year 7 cohort when we get the results so that we might address possible gaps in their knowledge to limit a dip at the start of the secondary phase and to deal with the resits which some of them are likely to end up taking. 

Wouldn’t it be good if we could drag something potentially positive out of an assessment which is viewed so negatively by some and distrusted by so many – something useful for the children we (both primary and secondary teachers) educate?

This post will be in three parts. In the first, I’ll focus on the current issues people take with the National Curriculum for English at Key Stage 2 and the three associated tests. The second post will look specifically at this year’s tests to see what all the fuss was about. In the third I’ll tentatively suggest some ways forward, with a particular focus on what secondary English teachers might do with the information from the tests, hopefully to the benefit of their students.  

Why not attend a ResearchED event dressed in a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches and chalk dust marks, convince everyone you’re a traditionalist by offering a reading of David Didau’s as yet unpublished, house sized edu-bible, but secretly start a breakout session on guerilla Brain Gym warfare?

In the limbo period between children taking the tests and the public release date of 20th May, I thought it’d be worthwhile finding out more about the controversy surrounding them. 

So, first, a bit of history…

When the National Curriculum was introduced to UK schools in 1988 it attempted to establish the knowledge and skills which children should learn between the start of their schooling and the age of 16. In order to do this, it  formally separated education into Key Stages. These were based on the structures which were already in place in the schooling system: 

  • Key Stage 1 – Infant school 
  • Key Stage 2 – Junior school
  • Key Stage 3 – Lower secondary
  • Key Stage 4 – Upper secondary

Kenneth Baker’s original consultation document proposed the following purposes for the curriculum:

  1. Setting standards for pupil attainment
  2. Supporting school accountability
  3. Improving continuity and coherence within the curriculum
  4. Aiding public understanding of the work of schools

The curriculum has been amended a number of times, with reasons for these changes being put variously down to streamlining, coherence, relevance and rigour. 

The current National Curriculum, in as far as it is one, has very similar aims to those outlined in Baker’s initial consultation – though the means to the end are quite different now. It seems unlikely, for example, that the following would have been seen in the original National Curriculum:

“The national curriculum is just one element in the education of every child. There is time and space in the school day and in each week, term and year to range beyond the national curriculum specifications. The national curriculum provides an outline of core knowledge around which teachers can develop exciting and stimulating lessons to promote the development of pupils’ knowledge, understanding and skills as part of the wider school curriculum.”

The Curriculum and its associated tests have always been contentious, as outlined by Robert Peal in his polemic Progressively Worse. At different points in its history, the designers and redesigners of the curriculum have been accused of contributing to a “dumbing down” of education with the help of Mr Men or being overly elitist as a result of focusing “too much” on dead white males. At the moment (though some would argue differently) the complaints mainly swing towards the latter of these two. Let’s categorise some of the current debate before we look at the tests themselves. 

Why not try sitting on the fence?

Content

The biggest current issue in terms of the content of both the KS2 English curriculum and the tests relates to grammar. 

This article, from 2013 in The Guardian, neatly summarizes the points Michael Rosen has to make against the National Curriculum’s treatment of grammar and the current testing methodology. Here, he states that he doesn’t disagree with the teaching of grammar in itself, but rather the manner of teaching and testing which the curriculum prescribes. 

On the flip side of the debate are Daisy Christodoulou and David Didau who view the teaching of grammar and linguistic terminology at primary level as a gateway to success at secondary school and beyond as an adult. 

Interestingly, there seems to be very little, if any similar argument about the isolated teaching of spelling and I doubt there would be if the government introduced an isolated vocabulary test. I know this is, in part, because there is far more consistent agreement about the spellings and meanings of words as a result of something called a dictionary, but I can’t help feeling that teaching novices a set of rules and conventions they can later be taught to bend and break would help them in the long run.  

Validity and Reliability 

Some commentators argue that the tests are neither valid (that they don’t assess a decent sample of the domain of each subject) nor reliable (that they don’t assess consistently or precisely enough). Page 31 of the Bew Report deals well with this and other issues further. 

Another argument against the National Curriculum tests is that they are unreliable because of issues with the accuracy of marking and faults in administration. The TES highlights these issues here. 

A number of anti-testers view teacher assessment as being the answer to these problems. The NUT outline their case for a shift towards this kind of model in this document

Teacher assessment can have its own pitfalls though, as Daisy Christodoulou identifies in this blog.  

What’s particularly concerning is the point that it seems to be particularly biased against poor and disadvantaged students. 
High stakes – Under Pressure

This aspect of the debate can be divided into two very closely related issues:

  1. The tests put pressure on schools and teachers to act in perverse ways. 
  2. The tests put undue pressure on children. 

An effective summary of the arguments relating to the former can be found here from Stephen Tierney. 

In terms of the latter, just read this report of children’s reactions to the tests on the day. 

Meanwhile, Martin Robinson offers some balance to this part of the debate in his piece about not panicking


Who uses the data anyway?

A significant issue with the National Curriculum tests and KS2 teacher assessments is that they create a divide between primary and secondary professionals at the exact point that they need to be working together most for the benefit of children. Many primary teachers believe the data is not only not used by their secondary counterparts but actively replaced by other information gleaned from other tests. Secondary teachers, meanwhile feel that the data is unreliable due to inflation resulting from the high stakes nature of the results. Both sides of this argument are explored really well here

The writer, Michael Tidd, who is a middle school teacher, finishes off by saying, “If I see an anomalous result, or a child who appears not to be working at the expected level, then I would think it only normal to speak to the previous class teacher. If only the same happened more frequently between schools.”

Perhaps a good starting point in this process would be for secondary teachers to have a better understanding of the nature of the test papers and this will be the focus of my next post.

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