Gove reforms: will pupils face fewer tests?

2 October 2013

"[Michael Gove] actually agrees with the authors of today's letter that "incessant testing" is inimical to a rounded education, and has ensured that most children will do less of it." The Times, 1 October 2013

The beginning of the school terms has seen two separate groups of academics writing to national papers to voice opposition to the government's education policy. In the first case, a group of campaigners wrote to the Telegraph calling for a postponement of formal schooling to age six or seven. This week a group of nearly 200 writers and academics has written to the Times calling for an end to "incessant testing" of school pupils. In response, the Times has written an editorial making the case that Michael Gove is in fact a proponent of less testing.

Michael Gove outlined his view of how pupils should be assessed in a speech last year at the Independent Academies Association. Crucially, he called for "regular, demanding, rigorous examinations." So how can the Times claim that pupils will be subject to fewer tests?

The first thing to note is that pupils are tested in two ways: via externally marked assessments - for which the Standards and Testing Agency is responsible up to Key Stage 3 - and via teacher assessments.

According to Michael Gove, "external tests are integral to balanced assessment", whereas according to Mr. Gove teacher assessments are influenced by teachers' low expectations of their pupils. In the speech, Mr Gove set out that he favoured a system that relied less on modular assessment and coursework as this can "take time away from teaching and learning".

The department is of the view that "all children in their final year of a key stage must be assessed." How the government's new reforms affect the national testing system will depend on the age of pupils.

Reception year: consultation underway to introduce new test

The Government is currently running a consultation on primary assessment and on how to best measure pupils' progress through primary school. This includes the possibility of introducing a test in reception year. The consultation will run until 11 October 2013. Until then, and until the government's response is published, we have no way of knowing whether the DfE will opt for more testing.

Key Stage 1 and 2: more phonics screenings, more teacher assessments and a new test

During Year 1, academies and maintained and free schools assess whether their pupils are able to correctly pronounce written words through a compulsory phonics screening. Starting from this year, pupils who did not meet the required standard in Year 1 are then subject to a further check in Year 2.

We contacted Michael Bassey, one of the signatories of the letter, who told us teachers are particularly worried about the intensity of these procedures and the pressure placed on pupils as a result of the phonics testing.

All primary school children have further tests at the end of Key Stage 1 (Year 2) and Key Stage 2 (Year 6). Year 2 children are tested in maths, reading, writing, and internally assessed (via classroom tests) in speaking, listening and science; Year 6 are tested in spelling, punctuation and grammar, reading and maths.

KS2 assessments are administered by state schools but tests are externally marked by the Standards and Testing Agency. Independent schools and pupil referral units can opt to carry out these assessments if they wish to do so.

In 2011 the government commissioned the cross-bench peer Lord Bew to review Key Stage 2 assessments. In his report, Lord Bew recommended "replacing the composition test [in English] with teacher assessment to ensure pupils can be more creative and to overcome the dangers of teaching to the test". This was taken on board by the Department for Education, which subsequently decided that from 2013 there won't be an externally marked test of English writing. Pupils' ability in the composition element of writing will be subject to teacher assessment only.

On the other hand, the National Curriculum reforms introduce grammar, punctuation and spelling tests from 2013 for all pupils at the end of KS2.

Key Stage 3 and up: fewer internal assessments, an end to resit culture

National tests for Key Stage 3 were abolished in 2008 and replaced by teacher assessments. This is not set to change.

The Government has recently responded to a consultation on Key Stage 4 assessments. It was decided that "internal assessment will be kept to a minimum" but the fate of external assessments is undecided:

"Certain aspects of assessment, such as the assessment of practical science or speaking ability in languages, lend themselves less easily to externally marked examinations. We do not want the assessment of those areas to become less effective, and we expect Ofqual and the AOs [Awarding Organisations] to decide where controlled assessment is absolutely required or where alternative, more innovative approaches to assessing candidates' abilities may be possible."

Proposed changes to GCSEs mean that internal assessment will only be used "where exams cannot validly assess the skills and knowledge required", while examinations will only take place in the summer. This will be introduced as a way to tackle "resit culture", after an Ofqual report on English GCSEs found that January exams were graded too generously.

Internal assessments will also be reduced for A-levels students. Last year Ofqual announced that January exams for AS and A levels will also be abolished from September 2013. Students will only be able to sit AS and A-level exams in the summer.

Incessant testing?

The Times substantiate their view that Mr Gove is averse to too much testing by arguing that:

"Modular GCSEs have already been phased out. The new rule that only pupils' first marks in their GCSEs will count towards their schools' league table rankings should limit the number of resits they take, and the move to end AS?levels as a stepping stone to A levels should mean fewer pupils sit them. The result: for most pupils, fewer years will be dominated by testing."

While changes to GCSE and A- and A-level exams might mean that this is true for older pupils, the same conclusions don't necessarily hold for pupils in other age groups. In some cases, such as Key Stage 1 and 2, more tests are being introduced.  


Flickr image courtesy of Jack Hynes

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