For nearly two decades, primary schools in England have been held to account for the effectiveness of their teaching on the basis of results from national curriculum tests in core subjects. Originally, these covered English, maths and science, although the science tests have been dropped and testing requirements in English continue to evolve. Primary schools face increasingly challenging targets for students’ performance on test-based accountability measures.

These accountability measures are a double-edged sword: on one edge, they are intended to motivate higher attainment; on the other, however, they risk effort being wasted on strategies that inflate test scores without a corresponding impact on robust, generalizable knowledge, skill and understanding. In recent years, there has been a lot of attention paid to the use of test preparation strategies by teachers in both primary and secondary schools in England. Research has demonstrated a strong influence of accountability testing upon both curriculum organisation and teaching behaviour (e.g. Mansell, 2007). Official publications and reviews have repeatedly identified, as a major concern, the increased prevalence of the use of dubious test preparation strategies, such as ‘teaching to the test’, over-rehearsal, and focusing undue effort upon borderline students (e.g. HCSCFC, 2008; 2010; Ofsted, 2008; 2012; Bew, 2011). An Ofsted (2012) report for example describes how schools provided revision or booster classes for pupils in years 6, 9 and 11 and focused particularly on those pupils at risk of narrowly missing the key threshold targets. In response to this growing unease at the impact of accountability testing upon teaching and learning, a former senior official at the Department for Education has recently argued that teachers should have the moral courage to avoid dubious test preparation strategies, and focus instead upon genuine strategies with the potential to facilitate robust, generalizable knowledge, skill and understanding; e.g. authentic and deep subject teaching (Coles, 2012).

Advancing theory and practice: studying the effectiveness of subject-specific test preparation strategies

Unfortunately, although there is research evidence and descriptive taxonomies concerning the use of general strategies for inflating test scores (e.g. ‘teaching to the test’), there is very little evidence at all concerning the range and prevalence of more specific strategies, particularly those specific to subject domains, like maths. Indeed, at the subject level, there is actually limited understanding as to what might constitute a ‘dubious strategy’ (for inflating test scores) as opposed to a ‘genuine strategy’ (for raising attainment). Exploratory studies have however provided anecdotal evidence of the existence of such subject-specific strategies and have pointed out how they may compromise the quality of the curriculum and reduce what children learn about a subject (Department for Children, Schools and Families, 2010). Ehren and Star (in preparation), for example, described how teachers tried to improve students’ ability to solve mathematical word problems on the high stakes New York state test, by teaching students to look for and ‘decode’ key words and phrases that often appeared in the items of that test to signal addition, subtraction or division. Mansell (2007, p.30) described how a primary school teacher in England tailored her teaching to questions similar to those which were likely to appear in the tests.

Clear empirical evidence on the effectiveness of these strategies is lacking. Maths education research provides some guidance, for example in showing that teaching students general heuristics to solve mathematical word problems does not have a positive impact on learning and transfer. The evidence for most of the subject-specific test preparation strategies is however mixed at best (Ehren and Star, in preparation).

These examples indicate a need to study teachers’ test preparation strategies, to understand their appropriateness and efficacy. The proposed research aims to fill this vacuum with an investigation into the use of test preparation strategies in relation to maths at key stage 2. We aim to enhance our understanding of the practices teachers adopt to prepare students for this test; examining the features of the test to which teachers are responsive, and how beneficial or harmful their practices are in promoting student learning in mathematics. We aim to explore the following research questions:

  1. What instructional strategies do teachers use in response to key stage 2 maths tests?
  2. To which features of key stage 2 maths tests are teachers responsive?
  3. How beneficial or harmful are these subject-specific test preparation strategies in promoting student learning?