Published on: 03 Mar 2014

Standardised tests feature one of the fairest and most accurate ways of benchmarking students and monitoring their progress: the Standard Age Score (SAS).

Clues and evidence: the purpose of standardised tests

It doesn't usually take too long before an experienced teacher has a good grasp on their pupils' strengths, weaknesses and potential achievement. All teachers rely on their professional expertise, observational skills and instincts to assess a pupil’s attainment informally.

But it’s far harder to transpose those finely-honed instincts into quantifiable information that can be shared with colleagues, governors, inspectors and parents. This is where standardised tests – independent tests that put pupils' ability in the context of their peer group nationally – come to the fore. As the recent NAHT Commission on primary assessment put it, ‘Assessment places achievement in context against nationally standardised criteria and expected standards’.

Objective results gained from an appropriate test can either confirm initial impressions or provide clues that encourage reconsideration in the light of the test findings. Properly done, the results will create a platform for the presentation of evidence – which adds to (and can back up) professional observations. This is more than a useful personal precaution against subjectivity; I believe in the current climate of accountability and in a world without levels, it will be essential.

What’s in a standardised test?

Some standardised tests are linked to key areas of the curriculum and will test knowledge acquired against the criteria of a subject’s programme of study. The majority of tests, however, are used either to test the underlying skills needed to make progress in learning, such as reading, or the abilities that support intellectual development, such as reasoning.

Yet regardless of test content, standardised tests feature one of the fairest and most accurate ways of benchmarking students and monitoring their progress: the Standard Age Score (SAS). The SAS is based on a student’s raw score which has been adjusted for age and placed on a scale that makes a comparison with a nationally representative sample of students of the same age. And this is why standardised tests take such a long time to develop, too. The latest edition of our Cognitive Abilities Test (CAT4), for example, involved 25,000 students across the UK and detailed statistical analysis to ensure that there was no bias towards any group of students.

Using the SAS enables scores from more than one test to be compared meaningfully as the average score is always 100, irrespective of the test type or the difficulty of the test. It therefore follows that a pupil who achieves a score of 100 from one year to the next will be making ‘average’ progress. It’s a common misconception that they need to increase their score year-on-year but that’s not the case.

Using standardised tests to track pupil progress

Standardised tests provide a reliable benchmark for tracking pupils' progress. This is essential for schools looking to demonstrate their effectiveness at supporting students with particular needs and those wanting to ensure their gifted and talent cohort don't start to coast. Through repeating tests once or twice a year, it's possible to see which ones are progressing as they should and which need additional support or challenge.

Examples of schools using standardised tests

At Holy Cross Primary in Leicestershire, a mixed diet of teacher observation and a complementary range of standardised tests enables teachers to compare attainment against potential, providing an easy way of spotting anomalies. Here, the headteacher embarked on this programme of assessment as teachers had been using teacher assessments well but lacked the concrete, independent viewpoint that standardised tests offer. This level of objectivity has led the school to share assessment data at parents’ evenings, too, when teachers can back-up any statements they make about a child’s performance.

Meanwhile, at St Peter's Collegiate Church of England School, a secondary school nestled on the south-western side of Wolverhampton, Ofsted inspectors were particularly impressed with the way they track pupils' progress throughout their education.

Such have been the benefits of using tests with national benchmarks, during its three day induction programme in the summer term, St Peter's administers the Cognitive Abilities Test so that when children arrive, staff know what they can expect from each pupil from the moment they enter the school and can ensure they achieve the best possible results by the time they leave.

In these schools, it is the quality of the teaching that is helping drive up attainment. But the testing regime helps focus those teachers' efforts.

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