It has not been a good couple of weeks for testing in England’s primary schools.
There have been leaks of both the KS1 and KS2 spelling, grammar and punctuation tests, leading to the KS1 test being scrapped for this year and accusations by ministers that malign forces are at work to undermine the government’s education reform process.
Baseline assessment for four year olds has also gone, as its unreliability for accountability purposes became so obvious that continuation became untenable. (Not that the problems with testing and accountability are unfamiliar to teachers or parents, as Stephanie Northen and Sarah Rutty reminded us in their powerful recent blogs).
Even before his problem with subordinating conjunctions, Nick Gibb was complaining about the current situation in a speech at the ASCL curriculum summit on 27 April:
You do not need me to tell you that the implementation of the new key stage one and key stage two tests has been bumpy, and I and the department are more than willing to accept that some things could have been smoother. The current frameworks for teacher assessment, for example, are interim, precisely because we know that teething problems that exist in this phase of reform need to leave room for revision.
‘Teething problems’ is a bit of an understatement.
The Cambridge Primary Review Trust is committed to looking at what the widest range of available evidence tells us about assessment and assessment reform, including from experience such as Stephanie’s and Sarah’s as well as formal research, and it argues that decisions should be made at both policy and classroom level based upon that evidence.
I want to briefly look at the research evidence on the grammar tests for seven and eleven year olds and the government’s claims for them, to complement and add to the blogs of the last fortnight.
Nick Gibb argued in his ASCL speech, as well as on earlier occasions, that testing is a way of raising standards in the core areas of reading, writing and mathematics. He said:
Against those who attack the underlying principle of these reforms, I stand firm in my belief that they are right and necessary. Our new tests in grammar, punctuation and spelling have been accused by many in the media of teaching pupils redundant or irrelevant information. One fundamental outcome of a good education system must be that all children, not just the offspring of the wealthy and privileged, are able to write fluent, cogent and grammatically correct English.
He thus conflates performance in these tests with writing fluently and cogently. But the evidence that a test will help the children to get better at writing when it asks six and seven year olds to identify an adverb in ‘Jamie knocked softly on his brother’s bedroom door’ or to decide whether ‘One day, Ali decided to make a toy robot’ is a question, statement, command or an exclamation, simply doesn’t exist. The experience of this year’s Y2 and Y6 children, before the requirement to do the Y2 test was dropped, was in many cases, that of separate grammar lessons where they were trained for the test, making sure they could identify word classes and sentence types through decontextualised exercises, so that they would be able to answer questions like these. If the test is reintroduced in 2017 this will happen again, distorting the curriculum with little or no benefit to pupils.
I make this claim because the research evidence over many years is unequivocal. Debra Myhill, who with her colleagues at Exeter University has extensively investigated the teaching of grammar and has shown that explicit attention to grammar in the context of ongoing teaching can help pupils to improve their writing, summarised that evidence in an April 2013 TES article. She wrote:
I did a very detailed analysis of the test and I had major reservations about it. I think it’s a really flawed test. The grammar test is totally decontextualised. It just asks children to do particular things, such as identifying a noun. But 50 years of research has consistently shown that there is no relationship between doing that kind of work and what pupils do in their writing. I think children will do better in the test than they are able to in their writing because it isolates the skills so that children only have to think about one thing at a time.
Myhill adds that the test will tend to overestimate children’s ability to manipulate grammar and make appropriate choices in their writing. It would be much more valid to assess children’s ability to manipulate grammar by looking at how they do so in the context of the pieces of writing they do in the broad curriculum they experience. This test is therefore unreliable. It is also invalid.
In her CPRT research report on assessment and standards Wynne Harlen defines consequential validity as ‘how appropriate the assessment results are for the uses to which they are put’. A test which focuses on labelling grammatical features may be valid in testing whether children know the grammatical terms, but it is not valid for making judgements about writing ability more generally. The evidence emphatically does not support Nick Gibb’s claim that the test will lead to ‘fluent, cogent and grammatically correct English’. These grammar tests will not and cannot do what the government’s rhetoric claims.
The Cambridge Primary Review Trust, like the Cambridge Primary Review, supports the use of formal assessments, in which tests have a role, as part of a broader approach to identifying how well children are learning in school and how well each school is doing, though like many others it warns against overloading such assessments with tasks like system monitoring. Wynne Harlen’s reports for CPR and CPRT, and the assessment chapters (16 and 17) in the CPR final report, remain excellent places to examine the evidence for a thoroughgoing review of the current assessment and accountability arrangements, including the place of testing within them, in England’s primary schools.
As I reminded readers in a previous blog the Cambridge Primary Review in 2010 cited assessment reform as one of eleven post-election priorities for the incoming government. Six years and a new government later, a fundamental review of assessment and testing is still urgently needed.
Assessment reform remains a key CPRT priority. For a round-up of CPR and CPRT evidence on assessment see our Priorities in Action page. This contains links to Wynne Harlen’s CPR and CPRT research reports mentioned above, relevant blogs, CPRT regional activities, CPR and CPRT evidence to government consultations on assessment, and the many CPR publications on this topic