DfE backdates writing test results to two years before separate writing tests required

Janet Downs's picture
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‘Ninety thousand more primary school children are achieving the expected standards in reading, writing and maths than in 2010, results out today (27 August 2015) reveal.’

Department for Education press release 27 August 2015

This is an odd statement because according to the DfE’s own statistical first release (SFR):

‘Schools have only been required to submit separate writing teacher assessments since 2012, so a longer time series is not available.’

And a look at the DfE’s own School Performance Tables for 2014 shows individual primary school test data goes no further back than 2012 – just three years when tables before 2012 showed four years of data. That’s because it’s not possible to compare today’s headline results to those before 2012.

It is, however, possible to note an improvement in maths and reading but not writing. Nevertheless, the DfE press release claimed 80% of Year 6s achieved Level 4 in reading, maths AND writing – ‘up from just 62% in 2009’. But separate writing assessments weren’t submitted until 2012.

‘Attainment in the reading test at level 4 or above is unchanged from 2014 at 89%; compared with 83% in 2010 and 67% in 1997,’ says the SFR. This actually shows improvement has been uniform: a 16 percentage point rise in 13 years from 1997 to 2010 and a further 6 percentage rise in five years from 2010 to 2015.

In Maths, the SFR says, ‘Attainment at level 4 (87%) has increased by one percentage point [since 2014], and compares with 79% in 2010 and 54% in 1996.’ Again, this appears to show uniform improvement, up 25 percentage points in 14 years and a further 8 percentage points in five years. The SFR notes the one percentage point improvement between 2014 and 2015 matches a similar one percentage point rise between 2010 and 2011 when the Year 6s would have been at the end of key stage 1. This year's improvement, the SFR suggests, ‘may be due to pupils entering key stage 2 with better mathematics skills rather than them making greater progress during key stage 2.’ Those 'better mathematics skills' in 2011 can't be said to be the result of reforms which took place in the last Parliament.

This steady rise in results could be down to better teaching. But it could also be due to more teaching to the test. Schools minister Nick Gibb, however, thinks he know the cause. It is is down to banning calculators in maths tests, ‘raising the bar’, introducing a spelling, punctuation and grammar test, and, of course, academy conversion.

Gibb says the results vindicated the expansion of the ‘valuable academies programme’ into primary schools. But six in seven primary schools are NOT academies (see here). And, as Warwick Mansell points out here, Gibb appears to have ignored advice from the UK Statistics Authority not to infer a causal link between school type and results.

This isn’t just a theoretical debate about statistics. ‘…this possibly erroneous and misleading interpretation is likely to have profound implications on the ground, as struggling primary schools are pushed, often controversially, towards sponsored academy status on evidential grounds which still seem dubious,’ writes Mansell.

The Education and Adoption Bill is proceeding through Parliament. This will speed up academy conversion. Yet the evidence base for academy conversion is becoming increasingly shaky. No amount of DfE public relations puff is going to alter that.

CORRECTION 5 September 08.45 In the original article I typed Year 7 instead of Year 6. SATs are, of course, taken in Year 6 not Year 7. This has been corrected.
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Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 07/09/2015 - 10:37

UPDATE: Nick Gibb has now admitted that academies and free schools aren't 'necessarily better'. He was talking to the ResearchEd conference in London and perhaps realised he might have received snorts of derision if he'd said academies and free schools were better than 'council run' schools. However, he weakened his comment by saying allowing schools more 'freedom' allowed them to flourish.

Pity he hasn't yet realised non-academies can do most things academies can do and academies in chains can have considerably less freedom than stand-alone academies or non-academies. The knives are already out for the former - the Schools Commissioner Frank Green CBE said stand-alone academies should be encouraged to join multi-academy trusts.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 07/09/2015 - 10:48

Just spotted some ignorant use of stats in the School Commissioner's letter to all academies, free schools, UTCs and studio schools. The graphs showing the rates of improvement in results between sponsored academies and LA maintained schools makes the usual error of praising the higher rate of the former when this rate is calculated from a lower base. As we keep on saying, any rate of improvement calculated from a lower base is bound to be larger than a rate calculated from a higher one.

One thing School Commissioner Frank Green did get right, though, is the fact that comparison of primary school results can go no further back than 2012 because 'a longer time series is not possible'.

Perhaps someone should tell Nick Gibb and the DfE publicity machine. If they keep backdating primary results prior to 2012 they're going to look rather foolish.


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