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Monday, 06 April 2015 22:36

Talk at National Tutoring Conference: The Kent 11 Plus test was changed to make it less susceptible to coaching. What happened next?

I was invited to speak at the National Tutoring Conference on 1st April 2015, to the title: "The Kent 11 Plus test was changed to make it less susceptible to coaching. What happened next?" The following is the script I planned to follow, but as those who have heard me speaking before will know. Do not assume I kept to it!

Kent is the largest Local Authority in the country, with 20% of the nation’s grammar schools, 32 in number, all admitting students through success in the Kent 11 plus. Around three years ago, the Cabinet Member for Education in Kent uttered those immortal words: “not fit for purpose” about the Kent Test. There were two main issues, firstly that tutoring was introducing an unfair skew into the outcomes, and secondly that the absence of any element of literacy in the assessments was allowing too many children who were unable to write properly through to grammar school.

I hope you will find that many of the conclusions in this talk apply to grammar schools in other parts of the country.......

Let me be clear; if there is to be an ability test for selection to grammar school, aspiring parents will want their children to do as well as possible, and so create a demand for a tutoring industry. I see nothing wrong with that. However, a Local Authority has a responsibility to be fair to all its children, and state primary schools are not permitted to coach for the test, whilst for many private schools it is their bread and butter, parents often topping this up with further coaching.

In order to answer the question of “what happened next”, I am afraid I need to look at some statistics, which is why I am reading this rather than my usual approach of talking without a script! Most of the data is reproduced on my website which explores a variety of 11 plus issues amongst other themes, in an article entitled “The Conundrum of the Kent Test”.

Kent County Council sets a pass mark in the nationally standardised 11 plus that selects 21% of Kent children as suitable for grammar school. Another 5% are chosen by looking at their work and ability profile, with still more added through the appeals, so that in the end nearly 30% of Kent children are admitted to grammar school in the county. The same rules for deciding if a child is selective apply for out of county children. One complication comes because three of the grammar schools are super-selective - primarily a Kent term to distinguish them from the majority of Kent grammars who, if oversubscribed, select from those who have passed by some sort of distance criterion. The super-selectives choose students on high scores, another five choosing a proportion on high scores, with coaching becoming increasingly important for admission to all these in what can become a fiercely competitive situation.

On a national scale, 21% of children found of grammar school ability equates to selecting on scores of 113 or higher on age standardised tests where children have not been prepared in any way, as in the samples used for comparison. For 2014 entry, the last year of the old test, children passed if they scored 118 or higher in each of three tests: verbal reasoning, non-verbal reasoning and maths, with an aggregate score of 360 or more, the discrepancy being largely due to the preparation and tutoring effect.

For 2015 entry, KCC adopted a different pattern of tests responding to the criticisms, but both still multiple choice: the first test was equally divided between English and maths, the second equally divided between verbal and non-verbal reasoning.

There were three scores produced of equal weighting in English, maths and Reasoning. The pass standard was 106 in each of the three assessments, with an aggregate of 320 or more, in order to produce a total of 21%. In order to understand this dramatic fall from the previous year, I have analysed the data that makes up individual scores and found results as follows:

  21%   Boys 21%   Girls 21%   Total
English 114 116 115
Maths 118 116 117
Reasoning 121 121 121

Several conclusions can be drawn.

Firstly, all these scores are above those of the unprepared national sample in which 21% of children achieved 113 or more. Not surprising, as all nearly all children will have been prepared somehow. Never forget the importance of parents and after school booster classes! Kent boys are only just above the national sample for English! Maths marks are higher than English.

Secondly, the reasoning mark is considerably higher than the other two. In my view, this differential is caused by one or more of the following: a focus of coaching on reasoning tests: more effective coaching on reasoning tests; or simply and most probably that reasoning tests are more susceptible to coaching than the other two.

Thirdly, there is an important difference between the performance of girls and boys. Under the old Kent Test, more boys than girls passed the test after achieving better maths results, with more girls being selected in the second tranche, focusing on school work, the two equalising out. In the new test, more girls than boys pass directly thanks to the introduction of English, and more are also selected in tranche two, so in total 25% of Kent boys and 28% of Kent girls are found selective before appeals. Whilst not relevant to this talk, this has the effect of there being increased pressure on girls’ grammar school places in Kent this year.

Fourthly, there is the surprising issue of why the pass mark for each subject is fixed so low, at 106, in order to get 21% of children selected/ This mark actually sees 34% of children reach this standard in each separate subject, whereas the 21% mark in each subject is much higher. The answer to this is highly relevant to tutors and to schoolteachers. Very few children will have failed the whole test by scoring less than 106 in the reasoning test alone; nearly all that have failed have done so through the maths or the English or both. The reason the pass mark is so low is because far too many children performed poorly in either English or maths, and the pass mark is fixed to allow children needing to reach the standard in all three to get through.

I would anticipate that for the 2015 test the pass mark will rise as the tutoring industry adjusts to the increased priority on the curriculum subjects of maths and English, which cannot be bad for children’s education! I have talked to many parents of children appealing for places in grammar schools this year and am frankly appalled to discover how many tutors have neglected English and maths teaching, as they have focused on going through the hoops of reasoning tests, which have no discernible value after the test is taken. For some tutors, this poses a problem, as teaching curriculum English and maths require additional skills, and I would certainly advise parents to ask more questions about such matters when engaging tutors.

Super selective schools choose those students achieving the highest scores: It is here that tutoring mostly comes into its own, as every mark counts, and with three super-selective schools in West Kent, there is a strong culture of coaching, and finding the best coaches. As those of you who work in that area know, many of the best are booked up a year and more ahead, some children are tutored from the age of five and some go to private schools focused on success at the 11 plus and are then tutored outside school as well. The latter examples are no childhood and in my view can almost add up to child abuse.

The most telling statistic is that for 2014 entry, there was a mushrooming of 161 Kent children scoring the maximum of 423, more than three times as many as most other scores down to 400. For the new test, this figure has fallen to just 8 (7 boys and one girl). As a result, these schools have also seen their individual pass mark tumble as the scores have become more spread out. My understanding is that they are pleased with this as there is greater discrimination.

So what is the answer to my question? I believe that for the 2015 Kent Test, the effect of coaching has been reduced, although for many children it will still make the difference between pass and fail, or decide if a child is to gain admission to a super-selective school. It is ridiculous to claim as some do, that a tutor-proof exam exists, and good tutors will always make a difference although for many bright children they are really an irrelevance with regard to the test. Any child who is tutored from now on ought to see an improvement in their maths and English curriculum performance, critical if they attend a poor school, and that is worthwhile in its own right.

Last modified on Monday, 06 April 2015 23:24

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