Reporter 414, 9 February 1998

University team oversees children’s tests in quest to improve mathematics standards

Primary school league tables were published last month – a source of celebration for some and, for others, consternation. Children are performing better because of the tables, says Schools Chief Inspector Chris Woodhead, but Professor Diane Shorrocks-Taylor, who heads a University team devising the annual national maths tests for 600,000 eleven year olds, isn’t so sure.

“We’re always trying to come up with interesting questions so eleven year olds can see that maths is relevant,” says Professor Shorrocks-Taylor, head of the Maths at Key Stage 2 project. “Maths isn’t just an abstract activity – we need it every day from comparing prices in supermarkets to working out how much wallpaper you need to redecorate your house. But at the same time we have to ensure the fundamentals are learnt in their own right so it’s all about balancing a real-life dimension with mathematical basics.”

Not an easy task, but then the team has years of experience, much of it in front line primary school teaching. Devising the tests for Key Stage 2 children involves brainstorming sessions with teachers and other education experts. A pool of 150 or so questions is whittled down to two papers of forty questions. “There are at least twelve ‘shreddings’ in each selection process,” says Professor Shorrocks-Taylor. “We literally pull each one to pieces and then rewrite them.”

The papers are then trialled and pre-tested in several schools throughout the 18-month development period.

For the tests themselves a back-up set of questions is devised in case of emergencies. “You hear apocryphal stories of people getting hold of the questions before the day but the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) does take security very seriously.”

It is up to individual schools how they carry out the tests; some favour a traditional exam hall style approach whereas others try to play down the event and the children carry out the test in their normal classrooms. The questions are ‘ramped’ so they get harder as they go along. “This gives the children a chance to build up their confidence and show what they can do – rather than what they can’t.”

When the tests for eleven year olds were first introduced in 1995, the schools were “hit right between the eyes,” says Professor Shorrocks-Taylor. The children had very little experience of formal testing and were not used to being in a situation where they had to work through a range of questions on their own. “We’d know that if you can’t finish a question you should leave it and go on to the next one, but the children didn’t know that. Schools are teaching these skills now.”

Critics have argued that improvements in results have happened because children have become better at doing tests rather than at doing maths, but Professor Shorrocks-Taylor believes there is a line to be drawn between unacceptable coaching and sensible preparation.

She is less certain about the value of league tables. “League tables currently provide a rough and ready guide to how well a school is doing but parents don’t really understand the ‘value-added’ aspect – where a school could be doing brilliantly with the resources it has or compared to the previous year. The QCA has suggested the value added aspect is taken into account. This would certainly make league tables a more valid guide.”

Not only does the team have a responsibility to the parents and children to produce as accurate an assessment as possible but the pressures of league tables and the tests’ influence on teachers adds weight to its work. “It’s amazing how the results can have an effect on what is taught in schools. It’s a very powerful tool for showing what the National Curriculum should be like in terms of what should be delivered in the classroom.”

As useful as the tests are for seven and eleven-year-olds, Professor Shorrocks-Taylor does not agree with suggestions that five-year-olds should be tested. “Very few children that age would be able to read the questions so they would have to be delivered orally. Only small-scale testing would be possible and standardised assessments would be very difficult. The current arrangement where teachers make structured observations is much better.”

Calculators are another political hot potato. The National Curriculum says children should be ‘effective users’. One of the two papers eleven- year-olds sit requires the use of calculators – but not for all the questions. “Part of the test is whether or not they know when to use them.”

The Leeds team was successful in its bid to evaluate the first national tests for seven year olds in 1990 and then bid for the Key Stage 2 tests in 1992. The contract, worth over £800,000, was renewed in 1995. The team has bid again for the KS2 tests, and also for the tests for seven year olds.

“We feel it’s important to have comparability and continuity between tests so we have bid for both tests. The personal research interests of the team and the fact we are pushing forward the theoretical understanding of assessment issues should stand the application in good stead.”

[Main news stories | University home page | Events]