Next week, across England children in year 1 will undergo the Phonics screening check, a test portrayed by the government as a way of identifying those at risk of falling behind in their early reading skills. Today my colleague Pete Yeomans and contact Stephen Lockyer shared on twitter a post by Deevy Bishop from 2012 which claims that data from last year’s check “provides clear-cut evidence that the data have been manipulated“.
Deevy took the data released by the Department for Education, plotted it on a graph and revealed the following distribution:
Describing this as ‘a worryingly abnormal distribution’, Deevy analyses the results and claims that the unusual looking dip followed by a huge cliff just after the ‘pass’ mark of 32 is the result of teachers and schools deliberately manipulating the scores of the children taking part.
My last foray into proper statistics is some years back in my A level Maths studies, so head over to the original post for a much clearer explanation than I could provide. I of course welcome those who are better informed in this field to challenge this if it needs to be challenged, as some commenters on the original have done.
So, if this is actually the case, why has this happened? It was my understanding from the media and government statements that the phonics check was meant to identify those who were in danger of falling behind and needed extra support so that such support could be provided. Of course nothing in UK education is ever as simple as that…
My initial research and discussions with a couple of head teachers has left me unable to pin down what the stakes actually are for schools. The government says the purpose of the test is to identify children at risk of falling behind so that additional support can be put in place. Even the NUT who oppose the check concede it is not currently going to affect league tables (although it has not been ruled out for the future). The results do become a part of the RAISEOnline tool that schools use for their own evaluation, and this does influence the areas explored by Ofsted inspectors when they visit. However, this is a very early test, and as long as strong provision is being put in place to ensure future progress and later outcomes are good then this hardly looks like a stick schools will be beaten with if they have a solid strategy for this issue that is appropriate to their context. What is actually at stake in the case of this test seems hard to pin down.
I am trying to understand what could drive the alleged widespread manipulation of this data, is it simply a fear that ‘whatever schools report may be later used against them’? Has education in England really come to the point where some schools would feel the need to defraud a statutory assessment just out of general fear and uncertainty, or is testing all a game now anyway? Who knows, maybe (as the original post suggests, then dismisses) the test was designed that way. There is one for the education conspiracy theorists out there…
Department for Education, Phonics screening check and national curriculum assessments at key stage 1 in England: 2012.
Department for Education, Phonics screening check FAQ; What is the phonics screening check?.
Department for Education & Ofsted, RAISEOnline.
National Union of Teachers, Phonics Screening Check.