Sunday, August 03, 2008

Final grade school exams in Britain expected to show quarter of pupils without grasp of basics

Fewer children are expected to start secondary school in September with a decent grasp of the basics, according to official forecasts

The number of 11-year-olds reaching national standards in English, mathematics and science will drop across the board, it is predicted. Sats results published next week are expected to show a quarter of pupils failed to reach the level expected of their age in maths. At least one-in-five is predicted to fail in English.

It follows new rules introduced for the first time this year - preventing schools "inflating" scores for thousands of borderline pupils. In the past, children just missing national standards had exam papers automatically reviewed - resulting in some many papers being upgraded. The loophole has now been closed.

Government statisticians said they expected results to drop by up to two percentage points when they are published on Tuesday, putting standards back at levels achieved in 2004. But there are fears that results could also be affected by the chaos surrounding the marking of this year's Sats papers. Results for 6,000 primary pupils had still not been delivered to schools earlier this week following errors by the company handling the process. Thousands more results for 14-year-olds were also outstanding.

Ofqual, the exams watchdog, said the delays would not affect marking, insisting "there was no evidence of widespread problems with the quality" of scripts. But some teachers have complained of irregularities, including papers being returned with no marks at all.

Alan Smithers, professor of education at Buckingham University, said: "The Government would have been better advised to hold them back so we could be assured that we were looking at authentic results. "So many doubts have been expressed that there has to be question marks against whatever results are published next week. If we are going to compare them properly against previous years, and use them as an accurate reflection of the performance of the system, we need to know that the results are as accurate as they could be."

The National Association of Head Teachers said the decision to publish national figures "beggars belief". It said it received 300 complaints from members about inaccuracies, which may only represent the "tip of the iceberg".

Some 600,000 children took Sats tests in their final year of primary school. In 2007, 80 per cent of pupils gained the level expected of their age in English, 77 per cent in maths and 88 per cent in science. The Department for Children, Schools and Families said it expected results to fall following the removal of so-called borderlining. In a statement, officials said it was likely to cause "a fall in the proportion of pupils achieving the expected level by up to two percentage points". It is believed English results will be worst hit.

Since the mid-90s, pupils with results two or three points below the pass mark in tests had papers automatically reviewed. But results for those who only just scraped over the borderline were never re-checked. It means thousands were marked up - but no-one was downgraded. Since 1999, average results have been boosted by 1.2 percentage points in English, 0.2 points in maths and 0.6 points in science, according to the Government's National Assessment Agency.

Nick Gibb, the Conservative shadow schools minister, said: "If these are more accurate figures, it just shows that the small rises in results we have seen in the last few years have been completely bogus. It will just reiterate the fact that standards of reading, writing and maths have plateaued over the last six or seven years. We should be getting all children to the required standard."


Inside the new U.S. education bill

On Tuesday night, a congressional conference committee passed legislation to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA) that if enacted - and it seems it will be - will drive up both the price of college and your tax bill. But don't bother trying to nitpick it; the legislation is 1,158 pages long and is expected to be voted on by the full House and Senate today. It is doubtful many members of Congress will read even a little of the bill before it's given a final yea or nay.

And what's the significance of 452 billion, you ask? In dollars, it's the newly projected size of the federal deficit, a huge shortfall to which the new HEA will only be adding digits. Consider just some of the broad lowlights, which is all that are available given the bill's sheer, mountainous size, and the time constraints under which it's being rammed through Congress.

First and foremost, the new HEA would increase the Pell Grant maximum from $5,800 to $9,000, a 55 percent leap. If the same number of Pell recipients as we had in 2008 - almost 5.6 million - were to receive maximum benefits under the new bill, it would cost more than $50 billion. The chances of that happening aren't huge - most Pell recipients don't qualify for maximum awards, and Congress rarely appropriates full authorized amounts - but Pell outlays will almost certainly rise, and their potential is fiscally frightening.

Still in the direct-costs-to-taxpayers column, the bill would simplify the process for students to get federal aid, easing the way to government money for students who are so unmotivated they won't even go through the current process to get college dough. There's also a new loan fund for colleges damaged by natural disasters, and added cash for graduate programs serving large minority populations.

Next, we have new rules and regulations. Colleges will have to report a lot more information about what supposedly drives their costs and prices. The U.S. Department of Education will get new authority to regulate private loans, which use no taxpayer money and are, as a result, the only truly fair student aid because both lender and borrower voluntarily agree to terms. There's even a requirement that colleges come up with plans to enable students to legally download music and movies.

And then there's the real kicker: This bill would do nothing to rein in rampant tuition inflation, by far the biggest problem in higher education. Indeed, by giving students yet more taxpayer-furnished aid, it will just keep exacerbating the problem, heaping more cheap money on kids so that they can demand bigger hot tubs, more famous professors, and fancier dining-hall food.

Just look at the numbers: It's no coincidence that while the inflation-adjusted price of college has gone up roughly 70 percent over the last two decades, aid per-student rose almost 140 percent. The more money students get from others, the more they're willing to pay and the more universities are happy to charge.

Unfortunately, this all seems inconsequential in Washington. The conference committee passed its HEA monstrosity 40-4. The bill is expected to breeze through the House and Senate - if it can physically be squeezed through the doors - on its way to a presidential signature. It's just another sign that numbers like 1,158 and $452 billion mean nothing in D.C. Vote counts are the only numbers that really matter.


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