Achievement and Attainment tables

This is the new term for performance tables which were published earlier this week by the DCSF.  You will find details of each primary school’s performance at Key Stage 2, the test that pupils take in the final year at primary school, aged 11, here.

School performance league tables are receiving some bad press at the moment.  Introduced by the previous Conservative administration as part of a marketisation of education, league tables were intended to provide parents with information upon which they could base decisions about their child’s education, and they could choose to send their child to the school of their choice.  In a free market economy it was believed that this would lead to raised educational standards, with parents exercising their rights to send their child to the best performing school, which schools ranking low in the league tables would be forced to improve in order that it retained and attracted pupils.  In other words parental choice would drive up standards.  Brilliant, just by choosing to send your child to a highly performing school parents can drive up standards.

Except it doesn’t work like that.  Parents have numerous reasons for selecting schools, and many parent have little choice about where to send their children, the local school becomes an automatic choice for many without cultural capital, knowledge to seek out the ‘best’ school or transport to ensure that their child can physically attend a seemingly better school on the other side of town.  For a comment about some research which examined this, see a previous post on the impact of parental choice.

The publication of the 2009 Achievement and Attainment tables follows bad news stories for performance tables.  In recent years we have seen the delay in publication of the tables along with the termination of contracts.  Key Stage 3 testing was recently abolished and political parties continue to vie  for votes  in a future General Election by telling us what they will do about League Tables.  The current Labour Government who inherited the legacy of league tables has hinted that they will probably disappear, replaced by teacher assessments with these to be introduced alongside test results from next year.  The Conservatives who introduced them, claiming it was necessary to inform parents about the ‘quality’ of local schools has suggested replacing them with a test in the first year of secondary school.  The problem here is that the league tables will not actually relate to the performance of the seconday school  but that of the primary school the child has just left.  So quite what the purpose of such performance tables will be is unknown.  Next year’s tests are threatened by members of  some teaching unions (the NAHT and the NUT), just in time for a General Election.

The publication of the 2009  Key Stage test results has prompted concern over falling standards with the Guardian reporting on the growing numbers of schools where pupils are failing to reach Level 4 (the expected level) in English and Maths by the end of Key Stage 2.  Yet, elsewhere Dian Morgan, the Schools Minister has highlighted the improvement in the number of pupils reaching Level 5  (beyond the expected level), particularly in Maths.  The DCSF press release also singles out Darlington as the most improved Local Education Authority.

League tables have been criticised since they came into existence because of the problems with reporting on the raw scores of pupils, failign to take account of the value that a school has made to the child  (known as value added) and the context of the school, such as deprivation, which is known to impact on educational attainment.  Under the Labour Government the issue of the various social contexts in which schools exist has been dealt with by a Contextual Value Added measure (CVA).  If you look at this on the DCSF website you will see this explanation:

“The CVA measure is shown as a score based around 100. Scores above 100 represent schools where pupils on average made more progress than similar pupils nationally, while scores below 100 represent schools where pupils made less progress.”

But this isn’t a remedy to the limitations of league tables as it based on having the Key Stage 1 scores of all pupils, which may not be possible in a school with a high level of mobility, particularly from abroad.

Just how much does the publishing of school tests actually tell us about the quality of education that takes place in that school?

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The key stage 2 attainment of ‘poor’ white boys

This week saw the release of statistics on Key Stage 2 attainment, broken down by pupils characteristics for 2008/09.  The figures are published as part of the Department for Children, School’s and Families’ (DCSF) programme of releasing education statistics, and is published in a Statistical First Release available as a PDF here.   While news reports have focused on the 48% of poor white boys who achieve the expected Level 4 at key stage 2, the figures need to interpreted carefully.  The term ‘poor’ comes from the measure used by the DCSF, that is eligibility for free school meals  (often referred to as FSM) and is not an unproblematic way of measuring the poverty experienced by school pupils. The key word eligibility for free school meals is misleading, as it actually describes the claiming of FSM.  Children who are ‘eligible’ for FSM also share some family background characteristics, particularly coming from a  single parent family.  The FSM figure is therefore only a proxy for poverty, although it is a widely used one.  It will exclude some children who live in ‘poor’ households.  It also serves to homogenise all children eligible for FSM, ignoring differences between them, in other words not all pupils eligible for FSM will be suffering from cultural and material deprivation and be growing up in households where educational attainment is not considered important.   Graham Hobbs and Anna Vignoles, from the London School of Economics provide a detailed analysis of the utility of using FSM data to measure pupils’ experiences of poverty.  In addition the Statistical First Release provides information on the Key Stage 2 attainment of other pupils, which to some extent has largely been ignored by the focus on ‘poor’ white boys.   The figures show that pupils from an Irish Traveller background and those of a Gypsy/Romany background do particularly poorly at Key Stage 2.  Pupils from a Pakistani and Bangladeshi background continue to do less well than their white peers, as do children from Black African and Black Caribbean backgrounds.   Indian and Chinese pupils continue to outperform other ethnic groups.  The figures also show a continuing gender gap, as overall a higher proportion of girls (74.4%) achieved Level 4 at Key Stage 2 than did boys (69.3%).The figures do indicate that class (which is difficult to measure with any degree of certainty), gender and ethnicity shape educational attainment and that an intersection of all three is significant, it is this intersection which needs to be examined in greater detail to help explain the subtleties in differential attainment of pupils by class, ethnicity and gender.