An Essex grammar school using an 11-plus test designed by the Consortium of Selective Schools in Essex (CSSE) has been told its test scoring is ‘unfair’ by the school adjudicator. The test was biased towards older children, with test entrants born in July or August at a disadvantage in terms of passing the test compared to older pupils of the same school year.

The complaint, made anonymously by a parent, was directed at Colchester County High School for Girls, and according to the adjudicator, ’A smaller proportion of summer born girls who take the test achieve the required test scores than girls born at other times of the year. I consider that the admission arrangements currently in operation are unfair to girls who are born in the summer months.”

The adjudicator ruled that girls taking the 11-plus at the school in September must have their scores adjusted to reflect age differences. The adjudicator’s ruling only applies to Colchester County High School, although several other Essex grammar schools use the same test.

The CSSE 11-plus test has been used by 10 Essex grammar schools since 1997, and although most 11-plus tests adjust test scores to compensate for age differences, this test does not. The adjudicator’s evidence reveals the degree to which younger pupils have been at a significant disadvantage.  In 2017 only 19% of pupils born in July or August achieved a test pass mark for the grammar school, compared to 35% of children who were born in September.

Melissa Benn, chair of Comprehensive Future said, “This ruling is just one more example of the lack of scrutiny that exists in relation to the 11 plus. The Essex test been unfair since 1997 with countless summer born children being told they’ve failed when they could have passed, while older children were passing when they might have failed. It proves once again how impossible, and unfair, it is to define complex children with a one-off test at age ten. It is high time we admitted the entire 11-plus test system is flawed and unworkable.”

One of the reasons given by the adjudicator for the age variation in the 11-plus scores was that older children, ‘will have been exposed to more language and, on average, a greater range of vocabulary.’

Rebecca Hickman, vice-chair of Comprehensive Future, said: “Critics of the 11-plus have for some time pointed out that the test assesses learning rather than ability. The adjudicator’s point on lower vocabulary levels confirms this, and is not only relevant to age. It equally applies to children from disadvantaged backgrounds and children who do not speak English at home, and therefore potentially opens the door to further complaints.”

The anonymous complainant also claimed the test was not ‘professional’ suggesting that other test providers checked questions for bias, while the CSSE did not. There was a claim that English and maths questions could cause problems for  some groups of children, as the CSSE 11-plus regularly uses texts by 19th century writers such as Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, and Thomas Hardy. It was suggested these might disadvantage children who did not speak English fluently. The complaint also mentioned that maths questions covered topics that were not taught in the year 5 primary school curriculum. The Adjudicator rejected these aspects of the complaint, claiming the maths questions could cover topics that were not taught in schools, provided there was a logical way of arriving at the answers.

Melissa Benn said, “In the past the 11-plus was criticised for asking questions about domestic servants or classical composers which might put working class pupils at disadvantage. Yet here we are in 2018 with schools testing children on passages from Dickens which may well advantage middle class pupils who have these books at home. It is also wrong for 11-plus tests to cover maths concepts not taught in primary schools. These questions will be answered quickly by coached children, and attempted slowly, with little chance of success, by children who’ve had no extra maths coaching.”

“There are so many problems with the 11-plus test and the selective systems that are build around it. It is the cause of systematic injustice and should be phased out immediately. We have all the evidence we need that high quality all-ability schools can provide a great education for every child.”

Colchester County High School will be forced to age weight the scores for pupils taking its 11-plus test this September. However, the adjudicator explained that grammar schools are permitted to design their own tests in-house rather than employing professional test designers. It’s not clear how many more of the 163 remaining grammar schools use tests that may cause unfairness to summer born children.