SATs: stick or twist?

Lots to absorb in the new coalition agreement today.  It’s good to see the Cam-Clegg, Lib-Con’s committing to a review the National Curriculum Tests for 11 year olds.  Definitely the right move.  They have become unwieldy beasts and, over time, have morphed from something conceived to focus minds on standards into something that has significantly squeezed the learning of anything meaningful or interesting during a child’s final year in the primary phase.  It creates a ridiculous pressure to drag a child up to and over an arbitrary finishing line, at a stage of their education when imaginations should be being fired with possibility, not being drilled to jump through hoops.

So, what to do instead?  There does need to be some significant re-thinking of the purpose, scope and value of testing and also, critically, how this data is presented and used.  We need a clearer delineation of what assessment is done to help the teacher (and pupil) focus on learning and what assessment is done for public scutiny and accountability.  There may well be overlap but we need to be much clearer about what we are doing and why.   That’s why a review is a good thing.

That said, I expect there is still a place for some  formal, ahem, ‘pencil and paper’ testing at the end of a Key Stage.  Recently, the tests have been supplemented by a system of continous assessment based on teachers’ knowledge of a child’s work, backed up with evidence to demonstrate their understanding.

Sounds good.  But it’s not.

It creates a paper mountain, is hugely time-consuming  and has the effect of creating a tick-box, lowest-common denominator approach to learning.  The teacher becomes an observer-bureaucrat, scrabbling around for evidence and filling in forms – mostly done ‘just in case’ Ofsted pop in.

Speaking of which, I hope the review is expanded to include a questioning look at the regulator.  Ofsted in many ways has followed the same path as the SATs; starting off as a broadly good thing, but soon becoming a less than benevolent force.

It’s time to clip the wings of both.

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8 Comments

Filed under Assessment, Conservatives, Lib Dems, Policy, Schools

8 responses to “SATs: stick or twist?

  1. Thanks for your very interesting post. I am that rarest of breeds: a KS2 teacher in favour of SATs. For me the league tables are the real issue, and no matter how we assess children, and of course we must assess them, as long as there are league tables we shall be in the same boat. I really don’t like APP (the new ‘teacher’ assessment that is so bureaucratic and dictatorial that teachers barely get a look in) and agree with your point about the sheer volume of paperwork that we’ll need to keep on top of ‘just in case’. Even with APP in place to assess children, if league tables are what we are judged by we will have the same pressures to ‘create’ results and therefore narrow the curriculum. Any teacher that is against SATs should turn their anger toward league tables!

    Keep up the blogging; just found this site and will be following closely!

  2. Liam – thanks for the comment and glad you like the blog. It’s still in it’s infancy so please spread the word!

    Would you keep SATs in their current form, untouched? On the league tables, I see your point, but once this data has been collected it’s difficult to argue this information should be kept from parents. Tell me more…

    We are in complete agreement about APP – what a distraction it is. I spoke to a colleague the other day – APP was the final straw and she’s decided to leave the profession. My approach is more subversive – I don’t do it. It’s not statutory and, until someone explains how it actually aids learning (rather than just being a glorified filing system), I’m keeping sctum until it’s scrapped!

    • To be fair to the ConDem coalition (I’m a Labour supporter myself), it seems that they’ve spotted the main problem I have with league tables. I teach in a school that is essentially an inner city school. However, we are part of a predominantly rural county (South Glos). Our children enter at reception significantly below the national average, but leave at or slightly above the national average. The league tables as they stand compare us to schools that are in rural, more privileged areas that don’t really bare comparison to us. The concept of value added is a difficult one to glean from looking at the data in the league tables unless you’re a teacher, so what’s the point? Alongside our more successful county colleagues, we look like a poor school; if we were a mile up the road in Bristol we’d be hailed as a success! I think comparing schools like to like makes a little more sense, but I know sure how one would identify those schools! I guess we’ll find out soon.

      As for the SATs, I really don’t mind them. As a year 6 teacher I approach it as an enjoyable challenge for the kids. We look at it as a measure of how well we’re doing as individuals rather than as a cohort and they seem to enjoy charting their progress through the year. I don’t accept the argument of the test putting too much pressure on the children – it’s the job of the teacher to deflect that pressure and train children to cope with these situations. Dealing with pressure is a vital life skill, in my opinion! I think I’d keep the SATs as they are (I’m glad to see the science tests scrapped though – they were more tests of very specific reading and cognitive ability than science skills and knowledge) but I think that there needs to be more chance to appeal against poor marking and use the weight of teacher assessment as a balance in such cases. Children under-performing on the day is also a situation that teachers should be allowed to use their assessment information to appeal. Perhaps even if they over-perform! Generally, there needs to be less politics and more common sense and realism in the system. We’ve been at the receiving end of some shocking marking in recent years: we had about 8 children’s writing papers returned to us 1 mark off being level 4 writing. We made irresistible cases for them all getting at least that mark and in most cases far more, all returned without the marks adjusted. One gets the feeling that it would have been to much of a climb-down for the markers, which is of course very frustrating for all concerned. We also had a child’s paper marked 35 marks below what it should have been! They had to change that one though…:)

  3. Oh yes, and I agree with you on APP! It may all be scrapped anyhow. I hope so. It merely mirrors our testing as it is, only with more work and more paper! When you have a child’s books and you know their work, it just seems a pointless exercise. I especially loath some of the literacy ones at KS2; you have to find evidence of children using commas INCORRECTLY (splicing to be precise) before you can move them up a level. Duh! Most teachers I know are using testing to gather the evidence for their APP anyway…

  4. Good points Liam. We work in similar schools – I’m in one on outskirts of London, a pocket of lower income families, surrounded by ostentatious wealth. It does make comparisons difficult, if not meaningless.

    Two more point on SATs. If they are kept, we could get the same evidence/information with less tests – one reading, one writing, one maths. Job done?

    I would also prefer children to get a score in each of these tests, rather than a level which leaves them with a feeling of ‘pass or fail.’ They are too young to be left with even the vaguest sense that that they are simply no good at something. A mark which tells them where they are ‘at’ and with good teacher feedback on how to improve would be much more beneficial.

    • Less tests would be good, although it could cause more discrepancies on the day – lots of kids do really well on one test and then poorly on the other in maths. But with better systems for appealing and submitting evidence I think that we’d be able to cut the amount of tests.

      The kids do get a score in the end, but it’s only relevant if they have something to compare it to. We talk to our kids a lot about points progress and involve them in monitoring their own progression. They understand what a particular level means and are really aware of where they were and what they need to do next. This means that they don’t pass or fail – we NEVER talk to them about having to get level 4s or 5s – but they should always succeed because they know where they’ve come from and where they’ve finished . I hope that all my kids leave feeling they’ve bettered themselves. And I guess if they don’t progress in a year, that something I should be worrying about in terms of my own performance as a teacher!

      The whole level 4 or 5 thing is purely mine to worry about; I look at the kids and think who is capable of making it and predict accordingly. However, if the kids progress as well as they can in the year, the percentages usually look after themselves! And I wouldn’t really care if we don’t hit national averages as long as the kids have made good points progress in a year. (Don’t tell my head that though!).

      Interested to see how ConDems review SATs. Any gossip?!

      • I think the school leadership and your school is more enlightened than mine. We have a Head who is obsessed by levels and (even worse!) sub-levels. It deadens the heart.

        Not sure what will happen with the SATs review. Gove’s plan a few months back was to keep the SATs but move them to Year 7. Which, on the face of it, seems bonkers.

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