Combined transfer test like ‘mixing oil and vinegar’

Robert McCartney in 2009
Robert McCartney in 2009

A pro-grammar school advocate has called into question efforts to create a single unified transfer test for Northern Irish pupils.

Robert McCartney, chairman of the national committee of the UK-wide National Grammar School Association, said the type of test typically used by Catholic grammar schools is “inferior” to those used by controlled schools, and combining the two would be like trying to “mix oil and vinegar”.

The two types of test are so different it would be “absolute rubbish” to try and compare the results of one with the results of another.

And since they have little in common, he queried how it could be possible to combine the two into one.

Morning View: Weir should explain why thinks multiple choice beats AQE model

Mr McCartney was reacting to news that talks between the bodies behind the two types of transfer test are set to begin in earnest within days.

Compulsory 11-plus tests were abolished in Northern Ireland in 2008 under the tenure of Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, who controlled the Department for Education.

However, voluntary tests can still be taken.

There are two such tests: one called AQE (run by an organisation of the same name) and one called the GL test (run by a group called PPTC).

Whilst there are some exceptions, the first test is essentially the one used to assess entry into controlled grammar schools, whereas the second one is the test used to determine admission into Catholic maintained grammar schools.

The Parental Alliance for Choice in Education estimates that about two-thirds of children sit transfer tests, and that most sit the AQE kind.

The fundamental difference is that GL tests are multiple choice ones, and are sat in the form of two instalments on a single day.

AQE tests meanwhile demand open answers supplied by students themselves, not multiple choice ones.

In addition, students can take either two or AQE three tests. They are sat on different weekends, not the same day.

If they take three tests, the best two out of three test results count.

Both sets of tests, GL and AQE, are sat in November.

Supporters of AQE say that testing on multiple days lets children to familiarise themselves with how the tests work, and also guards against the chance of them just having a bad day.

“I don’t think anything is going to come of them working together any time soon,” he said. “They’re two completely different forms of test.”

He said the multiple choice nature of the GL tests makes them “undoubtedly” easier.

He also said that the computerised marking system for GL tests (as opposed to being marked by examiners) is also a problem, because “there is a history in Northern Ireland of computer assessments being dud”.

“I’m in no doubt whatsoever that if there were a single test it ought to be the AQE test,” he said.

“The AQE is a superior test. It’s been researched and validated. It’s marked individually by human markers. It’s the sort of test that reflects the sort of teaching children get in primary school – namely, literacy and numeracy; reading, writing, and arithmetic.”

If some kind of combined AQE-FL test was created, he would want to consider it before passing comment.

“But basically, you can’t mix oil and vinegar,” he said.

“They’re two completely different tests, based on completely different considerations.

“It’s difficult for me to see at the moment how two tests which are totally different, could be amalgamated into one – presumably taking elements from both tests, which are completely distinct.

“They’re just messing about. In fact, I’m not so sure that this can even be managed.”

Morning View: Weir should explain why thinks multiple choice beats AQE model

What is happenning and when?

Formal talks about creating a single transfer test are now expected to get under way in early March.

The news emerged on Monday, and a joint statement from both AQE and PPTC – the firm which offers GL tests in Northern Ireland – said the move is “in the best interest of pupils, parents and schools”.

It follows an announcement last November by DUP education minister Peter Weir, who had said at the time he “wants there to be a common assessment by autumn 2018”.

Yesterday, the Department told the News Letter: “The department does not hold a view on any private assessment.

“The department does not have the ability to ‘axe’ either method of testing as both are entirely independent.

“To achieve a common entrance test, agreement is required between those setting the test.”

In Northern Ireland, there are 29 Catholic grammars. They generally use the GL test.

Meanwhile there are 16 controlled grammars, plus another 21 other non-Catholic grammars. They generally use the AQE test.

However, it is understood that seven of the above grammars (including one Catholic one) will accept pupils who have sat either test.

AQE tests are only used in Northern Ireland.

GL tests are run across the UK, and in Northern Ireland are offered via PPTC.

Regarding the criticisms described by Mr McCartney of the PPTC-run test, its chairwoman Carol McCann told the News Letter: “They can say whatever they wish.”

“From our point of view, at the end of the day, the test that we have been using since 2010 has done exactly what it set out to do, and we’d see the success of that test in terms of the outcomes of the pupils who have used the test.”

She stressed: “Our test is fit for purpose.”

Asked how they could arrived at a unified test when the AQE ones are so different, she said: “That’s where we’re going to be having discussions.”

She also said they would be “consulting with a lot of people before we ever come to any decision”, and that parents will be put “centre stage”.