Dear Standards and Testing Agency.
I wish to reopen my enquiry reference number 181119-000054 because you have not responded to my concern. The purpose of the rest of this email is to explain my concern about the assessment framework for the Multiplication Tables Check more clearly.
Best practice for teaching tables in primary schools is to start by teaching children to understand the concept of multiplication so they can reliably answer tables questions correctly. Children then practice their tables many times so that they learn to recall answers with an increasing degree of certainty and to check their knowledge with gradually more efficient methods. A child who can recall their tables and quickly check them using efficient methods has achieved fluency. Over time children can come to know most, or all, of their multiplication facts so well that they no longer need to check them and reach the level of automaticity (recall from long-term memory without checking). However, their memories for some results may fade and they may return to fluency.
This test is deliberately designed to assess automaticity (recall from long-term memory without checking) and to give no credit for fluency.
The problem we have is that there is no evidence to suggest that it is realistic for all 8-year-old to achieve automaticity as an extension to fluency. Experience shows, and experts think, that it not realistic to expect that they will. Research evidence shows that girls (in particular) are reluctant to drop the process of checking their answers – especially in a test situation. Nobody has ever created a case to suggest that is wise to force children to drop the checking process by the age of eight.
The problem we then have is what happens to the children who are fluent with their tables but have not yet achieved automaticity? What happens to the girls (in particular) who still desperately want to check their answers – especially in a test situation? Many of them simply will not cope with the 6 second guillotine on every question. They will find it tremendously stressful and will experience repeated failure. They will panic and will achieve few marks.
Teachers will want to ensure their students avoid this stressful experience of repeated failure. The most obvious way they can do this is by ensuring tables are taught to be rote learned from the beginning. Children who’d experienced this learning journey would do well on this test and should not find it particularly stressful. But they will not understand their maths so they will be unable to puzzle out answers when they start to forget them and they will not have key elements of mathematical understanding in place to support their future learning.
So by specifying the assessment framework for the Multiplication Tables Check in this way the Standards & Testing Agency are putting colossal pressure on schools to use bad practice.
You should remember that the key reason we are introducing this test in year 4 because it is assessing a skill that is taught in year 4 in the current primary curriculum. But the currently curriculum was created by politicians, not experts. Only a tiny amount of consultation happened after the court case against the DFE for not consulting was won. This happened too late to influence the curriculum content. But a key concession that was won was the replacement of references to rote learning with references to teaching for fluency towards the point of children being able to recall results.
If you had created a specification for the multiplication test which timed how long it took for children to complete it (with full marks) with more credit being given to children who took less time overall (and a gold standard which is consistent with automaticity/recall), you would have designed a meaningful and relevant test. What you have instead is a test that will encourage schools to focus on discredited teaching practices which will do the education of many children.
Please explain how you will address this concern.
Rebecca Hanson (MA Cantab., MEd.)