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Ballymena Guardian Common Test Oct14

The solution to the single test issue for grammar schools is as clear as it is simple: how defensible is the practice of using two tests to determine grammar school entry?

In Northern Ireland, grammar schools usually admit pupils using one of two tests: the vast majority of “state” grammar schools use the AQE test to select pupils, and the vast majority of Catholic grammar schools use the GL test. A small number of schools engage in a process which has come to be called “dualling,” whereby pupils who have taken either the AQE test or the GL test (or both) are considered eligible for entry. Moreover, the algorithm for assigning children to a single score scale using scores from these very different tests (see below) is shrouded in mystery. Despite its importance to parents applying to the school, I can find no such algorithm on the website of any “dualling” school. However the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) does caution against misuse stating “Care should be taken when considering the change in percentile rank of one test-taker on different occasions or on different tests” See http://www.nfer.ac.uk/research/centre-for-assessment/standardised-scores-and-percentile-ranks.cfm

In what follows, I argue, on behalf of test-takers that “dualling” is unlikely to be defensible. Given the recent entry of the Presbyterian Church in Ballymena into this debate, it will be useful to frame the case that “dualling” is unlikely to be defensible using the Church’s concern that testing only adds to the “stress already inherent in moving from primary to post-primary school.” My central preoccupation will be the radically differing approaches to test anxiety taken by the AQE and GL tests.

The Transfer Test, abolished by Direct Rule ministers and Sinn Fein when that Party took up the education portfolio, consisted of two tests, each of one hour duration, taken on separate days and assessing mathematics, English and science. Children, who might, for example, have had a sleepless night before taking Transfer Test 1, had the opportunity to improve their score on the second test. In these circumstances, a sleepless night might only impact adversely on one of the two assessments. Moreover, by holding the tests on different days, children, through access to their teachers in the period between tests, had opportunities to address shortcomings in their knowledge and skills which might have come to light in Transfer Test 1, in time for Transfer Test 2. I will now argue that while the AQE test, by design, seeks to reduce levels of test anxiety below those associated with the Transfer Test, the GL test represents a backward step in addressing test anxiety when compared with the Transfer Test.

GL’s guidance literature reveals that children are involved in almost two hours of testing (with a comfort break in the middle) at one sitting. (It should be noted no GCSE examination – taken by much older pupils – exceeds 90 minutes.) In the GL framework there is no opportunity to address shortcomings between test occasions because the assessment in its entirety takes place on one day. A sleepless night has the potential to impact adversely on all aspects of the child’s test performance. Added to this, the children have to carefully transfer each of their answers to a multiple-choice grid because the GL test is marked by “optical mark recognition” software.

While the GL test has greater potential for stress and anxiety than its predecessor, the AQE test was designed to improve on the Transfer Test in this respect. The AQE test involves three one hour tests and seeks to improve on the Transfer Test’s two-test structure in respect of test anxiety. The first and second tests are separated by a fortnight, and test three is taken one week after test two. There is plenty of opportunity to address misconceptions with one’s teacher as one goes from test to test. The impact of a sleepless night is greatly reduced because the child’s best scores on two of the three tests are used to compute his or her published score. The process discards the child’s lowest score. Finally, children simply write their answers (and rough work) on the test paper, with the need to transfer each answer to a grid obviated entirely.

Why should it matter that one test (GL) has decreased the number of test occasions previously available under the Transfer Test, while the other (AQE) has moved to increase this number? Why has AQE gone to such lengths to reduce the potential for test anxiety to levels below those associated with the Transfer Test? If it is accepted that the AQE and GL tests differ significantly in respect of their approach to test anxiety, what implication could this have for the practice of “dualling”?
The answer is that differences in respect of test anxiety have significant measurement implications. Even for older test-takers, there is a well-established correlation (on a scale from -1 to +1) of approximately -0.4 between test score and test anxiety (see Wildemuth (1977): Test anxiety: An extensive bibliography (ERIC/TM Rep. 64). Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service).

Questions about the defensibility of “dualling” arise because the two tests used to assign children to a single rank order, measure differently as a consequence of their differing approach to test anxiety. The Ballymena Presbytery is right to emphasise the centrality of minimising pupil stress. This has been at the heart of the AQE project since its inception. Any effective “dualling” algorithm must take account of the differing approaches of the AQE and GL assessments to test anxiety. Because no such algorithm exists, “dualling” can play no role in attempts to address the concerns raised by the Presbytery. The solution is as clear as it is simple: parents must demand that all grammar schools in Northern Ireland adopt the same selection test.

Stephen Elliott
Chairman, The Parental Alliance for Choice in Education

The above article was published by The Ballymena Guardian in response to a concern expressed by the Ballymena Presbytery on Thursday October 2nd, 2014 Read it here http://www.ballymenaguardian.co.uk/articles/news/42455/presbyterys-grave-concern-over-school-tests/

Questions will arise from parents considering the reduction of anxiety concern for their children when contemplating using “dualling”

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