There has been widespread coverage this morning of parents withdrawing their children from school, in protest against the new Key Stage 1 tests. Some parents and parts of the teaching and education sector are worried that the tests, and indeed the new primary curriculum on which the tests are based, are too difficult and put unnecessary pressure on young pupils. The petition, which has been signed by more than 40,000 people, calls for a greater focus on creativity and teacher-led assessments rather than standardised testing.
Testing must of course be proportionate and avoid placing pressure on pupils, particularly in their primary years. There is a risk however, that in expressing genuine and understandable concerns about the pressure that testing can place on pupils, we lose sight of why testing, and particularly standardised testing, is an important feature of an education system that promotes choice and accountability.
Last month, CentreForum published its Annual Report which highlighted just how far the English education system needs to improve in order to meet what we consider (based on OECD data) to be a world-class standard. The report found that in 2015 only 38 per cent of pupils achieved a world-class standard. In addition, there were only 21 non-selective schools in which 75 per cent or more of their pupils achieved this world-class standard – a third of those schools were in London. As our report demonstrated, success in reading, writing and maths at primary is vital if we want and expect pupils to go on to succeed at secondary and be able to compete in an increasingly global labour market.
Attainment in the early years and at primary school is particularly important for disadvantaged pupils because we know that how well children do in their early and formative years can have a lasting effect. Our Annual Report found that, by the end of secondary school, disadvantaged pupils are on average, 19 months behind their more affluent peers. But, crucially, the majority of the gap (three-fifths) between the most disadvantaged pupils and the rest had developed before children even stepped into a secondary school and two-fifths of the gap was there before children started Key Stage 1. And so if Government, and the sector, is serious about closing the gap then they need the ability to identify, diagnose and intervene early on.
Teacher assessment is of course already widely used for these purposes and can help to support a child’s learning and development. But relying solely on teacher assessment poses two risks which we view as considerable barriers to supporting a world-class and equitable education system.
First, research published by Simon Burgess found that gender and class stereotypes can affect teacher assessments. His study found that, compared with national test scores, girls were over-assessed in English and under-assessed in maths. He also found that pupils on free school meals were consistently under-assessed by teachers compared with how well they achieved in national tests. In other words, ‘poor pupils systematically and significantly out-performed what their teachers thought they would achieve’.
Second, teacher-assessment will inevitably vary from school to school. It cannot give a reliable national, or indeed local, comparison of how well a school is supporting children to progress from one phase to another. Without knowing this, we restrict parents ability to express choice using reliable and rigorous data and we also reduce their ability to put pressure on schools, local authorities (for now, at least) and national government to improve.
Improvement and performance must therefore be measurable so that where underperformance is identified, it can be addressed early on. To rely solely on teacher assessment risks undermining parental choice and removing a vital lever for the public more widely to hold both the system and government to account.
This doesn’t mean that testing should put unnecessary pressure on pupils or teachers. Both the curriculum and the tests should be designed and administered in an age-appropriate way, providing an effective measurement of progress between stages and enough time for the teaching workforce to adapt to new approaches.
 CentreForum defines a world-class standard as 75 per cent of pupils achieving 50 points or more under the Attainment 8 (2017) framework