On 26th September the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, was extremely pleased to announce that the results of the phonics check for 6 year olds in England had improved considerably: 18 per cent more children had reached the ‘expected standard’ in 2014 than in 2012 when the test was introduced. A government spokesman stated that ‘100,000 more children than in 2012 are on track to become excellent readers’.
As primary teachers are aware, the phonics check has become a high stakes test. School results are collated and analysed in depth through RAISEOnline and made available to Ofsted inspectors, who are explicitly told to consider these results as evidence of the effective teaching of early reading in the current framework for Ofsted inspections.
The CPR final report in 2010 pointed out that primary children in England were tested more frequently than in many other countries, including some that rank higher in the international performance league tables. Since then the difference has become even more marked. Further tests have been introduced – the phonics check and the introduction of a grammar strand in the tests for 11 year olds – with the intention of introducing a similar grammar strand for 7 year olds in 2016.
Politicians like Nick Gibb like to claim that tests like these raise standards, yet CPR found that the evidence of a causal relationship between tests and raised standards was at best oblique. It continues to be unconvincing. Scores in the tests rise, certainly. But what high stakes tests do is ‘force teachers, pupils and parents to concentrate their attention on those areas of learning to be tested, too often to the exclusion of much activity of considerable educational importance'(CPR final report, page 325).
This is particularly true of the phonics check with its 20 phonically-regular real words and 20 non- words to be decoded, with 80 per cent accuracy required if it is to be passed. Indeed, as Alice Bradbury points out, there is considerable disquiet that the check was introduced by politicians as a means of forcing teachers to change the way they teach early reading.
In his rather approving analysis of the test results David Waugh said, ‘I know many teachers who now concentrate a lot of time on teaching children how to read invented words to help them pass the test.’ This has been my experience too.
Thus the test promotes a distortion of reading development. Teachers in primary classrooms spend extra time on teaching children how to read made-up words, diminishing the time for reading real words and teaching the other strategies needed for accurate word reading (whole word recognition of irregular words, the use of context for words such as read, for example), let alone comprehension and the wider experience of different kinds of text.
Increased test scores do not infallibly demonstrate improved standards. Wynne Harlen confirms this in the forthcoming review of research on assessment and testing which CPRT has commissioned as one of its 2014 research updates of evidence cited by CPR (to be published shortly: watch this space). It is therefore hardly surprising that results of the phonics check have improved as teachers become familiar with the demands of the test and adapt their teaching in line with them. Yet here we have a test that undermines the curriculum and is unlikely to give any useful information about children’s reading development; a government which is committed to increasing the number of tests young children are subject to despite evidence of their negative effects; and an opposition that has given no indication that it will change this situation if elected in 2015.
In 2010 the Cambridge Primary Review cited assessment reform as one of its eleven post-election policy priorities for the incoming government. As we approach the 2015 election assessment reform remains, in my view, as urgent a priority as it was in 2010.
David Reedy, formerly Principal Primary Adviser in Barking and Dagenham LA, is a CPRT co-director and General Secretary of UKLA.
- To find out how to contribute to the debate about primary education policy priorities for the 2015 general election, see Robin Alexander’s blog of 25 September.