|Data from Table 4, Additional Tables 2, SFR21/2012|
Department for Education (weblink above)
Monday 1 October 2012
Data from the phonics screen: a worryingly abnormal distribution
The new phonics screening test for children has been highly controversial. I’ve been surprised at the amount of hostility engendered by the idea of testing children’s knowledge of how letters and sounds go together. There’s plenty of evidence that this is a foundational skill for reading, and poor ability to do phonics is a good predictor of later reading problems. So while I can see there are aspects of the implementation of the phonics screen that could be improved, I don’t buy arguments that it will ‘confuse’ children, or prevent them reading for meaning.
I discovered today that some early data on the phonics screen had recently been published by the Department for Education, and my inner nerd was immediately stimulated to visit the website and download the tables. What I found was both surprising and disturbing.
Most of the results are presented in terms of proportions of children ‘passing’ the screen, i.e. scoring 32 or more. There are tables showing how this proportion varies with gender, ethnic background, language background, and provision of free school meals. But I was more interested in raw scores: after all, a cutoff of 32 is pretty arbitrary. I wanted to see the range and distribution of scores. I found just one table showing the relevant data, subdivided by gender, and I have plotted the results here.
This is so striking, and so abnormal, that I fear it provides clear-cut evidence that the data have been manipulated, so that children whose scores would put them just one or two points below the magic cutoff of 32 have been given the benefit of the doubt, and had their scores nudged up above cutoff.
This is most unlikely to indicate a problem inherent in the test itself. It looks like human bias that arises when people know there is a cutoff and, for whatever reason, are reluctant to have children score below that cutoff. As one who is basically in favour of phonics testing, I’m sorry to put another cat among the educational pigeons, but on the basis of this evidence, I do query whether these data can be trusted.