Undoubtedly, thanks mainly to media pressure, the results of the 2017/18 transfer tests will be the subject of conversations in families all over Northern Ireland this weekend and for months beyond. The Parental Alliance for Choice in Education wish to offer our congratulations to all pupils who took the tests and express our hope that pupils are offered a place in the school of their choice. Unfortunately as with any competition based on opportunity not everyone will be able to avoid some disappointment.
Perhaps an expression of thanks should be offered by parents & guardians for the provision of these “unofficial” or “unregulated” tests. Without the dedication, commitment, psychometric expertise, and adherence to available international standards all pupils would be attending comprehensive schools. This was the expressed aim and intention of successive Education Ministers and remains the aim of the Department of Education. This is particularly relevant given the collapse of the Executive and Assembly. Indeed it is remarkable that very little support for academic selection to grammar schools can be found in the media. This stands in stark contrast to the commercial greed of newspapers promoting the publication of schools league tables, transfer test practice booklets (while AQE provide all past papers at no cost) and just this week a transfer test guide suggesting, albeit inaccurately, scores that will get your child a place in a particular school.
As has been widely reported the number of applications for the AQE and GL Assessment tests has continued to grow. In the academic year 2016/17 14,491 test entries were received. This resulted in 11,570 applications to grammar schools for the 8,743 places available. Therefore 3 out of 4 applications succeeded. This year will be similar.
Victoria College, Belfast have operated the questionable and non-transparent practice of dualling (accepting applications from pupils who have taken both tests or either) yet in this Belfast Telegraph article the principal Patricia Slevin proposes a single test. The dualling practice will have undoubtedly created misclassifications, resulting inmany pupils being denied a place in the school through the error of suggesting that two different tests, measuring different constructs, can simply be merged into one.
The Parental Alliance has sought engagement with both AQE and GL Assessment, the test providers. GL Assessment refuse to engage citing their customer, PPTC, in a commercial contract. Since much is made of the fact that GL Assessment tests are free to pupils, who pays GL Assessment their charge for providing the multiple-choice, computer scanned and marked test? This raises the question of why this high stakes transfer test remains shrouded in secrecy. Recognised international standards suggest that pupils and their parents should be provided with exemplars of the questions likely to appear on tests. Neither the PPTC nor GL Assessment meet the standard. Indeed no past paper from GL Assessment has ever been published. The media have conspicuously not sought answers to this issue. Every year the BBCNI will broadcast a package on results day, invariably it will be from a school using the AQE test. No questions have been raised by the media about the dualling tables and their origin.
There is no shortage of commercial Practice Papers available to purchase. Note the term “PPTC-style” All AQE past papers are made available to primary schools at no charge.
Another major distinction between the two tests is that GLA pupils only have one attempt at the examination. The time required for familiarisation, practice and the actual assessments in English & Maths exceeds that for many GCSE examinations.
Pupils taking AQE have three opportunities, allowing for a possible “off day” due to testing anxiety.
Concerns have been raised this year about the use of content from the work of Charles Dickens in the PPTC GL Assessment English paper. Most pupils may have difficulty distinguishing between the author of fourteen and a half novels and the contemporary magician pictured below. Charles Dickens was famously known for being paid by the word published. The version of David Copperfield featured has 745 pages of text. The two exams are contrasted for parents to discuss.
Contrast the above passage (randomly selected from the 745 pages in the book imaged above with the prose passage taken from an AQE 2017 paper. AQE tests are always unique; never repeated.
The quest and motivation for a single transfer test must be critically examined by parents. In whose interests has the project been adopted? When the CCEA Transfer Test was ended, without a replacement examination in place, by Caitriona Ruane the prospect of compulsory comprehensive post primary schools loomed. A single (one provider) test was offered by AQE. This was quickly rejected by those mainly representing Catholic grammars. To be clear, the single test project is a manufactured crisis, clearly in the hands of politicians, civil servants, and school principals. Former DUP Education Minister kept the project alive by inviting Peter Tymms of Durham University to report on the matter. Tymms has a history with Northern Ireland primary school pupils via the now abandoned Incas assessments used in primary schools. (see blog search engine for articles).
The report from Peter Tymms was published by the Northern Ireland Executive Office close to the last day of the collapsed Assembly
Concerns raised with AQE joint CEO, Stephen Connolly about entering any process proposed by the Department of Education to work on a single test were met with a promise to express further reservations. It is understood that Stephen Connolly subsequently continued to meet with DENI officials
Another difficulty for parents is the fact that many grammar schools are not using academic selection for all pupils. Read the admission criteria carefully before applying to schools. It may be the case that your child is denied a place in favour of a pupil who did not take the tests. In the graphic below it is clear that Royal School Dungannon, Royal School Armagh and Sullivan Upper do not select 100% of their pupils by academic testing. Strathern School use bands rather than rank order of marks so that it will be impossible to reassure a child getting results today that their score will get them a place.
The problem is even more acute when the dualling schools are examined. The obvious issue of the integrated schools pretending to be grammars can only be matched by those Catholic grammar schools which no longer use academic selection.
Wallace High School in Lisburn, another grammar school which uses bands to report test scores only selects 87% of year 8 pupils. The minimum score reported is 101. Wallace High admit 170 pupils to year 8 so a total of 22 pupils get places without use of academic selection.
During October 2017 Wallace High School attracted attention for restricting the number of primary 7 pupils allowed to sit AQE tests at the school. It became clear that this was not a matter of physical capacity but the willingness of teachers to make themselves available on Saturday mornings.