Category Archives: Assessment

Wish them luck

SATs week is upon us. No more can be done. They’ve been coached, coerced and crammed. They’ve been drilled to death. They are machines. Tomorrow, they will sit in their rows, silent. Tomorrow, they must deliver.

The stakes are high for all schools but for mine in particular; on their eleven year old shoulders lies a heavy burden.

If they succeed, if targets are met and hoops are jumped through, then we are safe for another year. If they come up short, by one mark or by more, then an unspoken calamity will occur. Heads will roll. Or, more likely, the Head will roll.

The long history of neglect at the school, dating back a decade or more, long before any of the incumbents were in place, matters not one jot.

The school, like an oil tanker, may be turning a corner and heading towards a brighter horizon. There are good teachers in every class. The corridors, once chaotic, are now calm. Empty chairs are being filled with new children keen to come to a school that, not long ago, was bottom of every list. We’re going places.

But all this comes crashing to a halt if our Year 6 don’t do the business this week. The innocent victims of abysmal teaching in their early years, they have had a huge mountain to scale this year. For some, this has meant making three years progress in just over two terms. Whatever happens, they will have succeeded. They will not have failed.

The grim truth is that we need them to pass; level 4 is our golden ticket, our get out of jail card. Most are there and many comfortably so. This, however, is a game of percentages. We’ve known since September that it’ll be one or two children that will tip us over the edge, one way or another. More than likely, it will come down to one mark in a reading test or two in a maths test.

All that is left is to wish them luck.

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Rosen puts another nail in the SATs coffin

Thank goodness for that; SATs are over for another year. As always, they have prompted much debate and discussion, in the staff room, at the school gate and in the papers.

There is a pretty well-established critique of SATs which suggests they put too much pressure on children while telling us little about their abilities that we don’t know already. The high-stakes nature of the SATs, with league tables constructed based on the results, narrows the curriculum and moves school life away from learning and creativity towards something best described as training (take a look at this blog-post written from the perspective of teacher and parent – it makes for painful reading).

Added to this criticism of the system and its effects on children, is a more forensic analysis by Michael Rosen, who brilliantly (and at some length) picks apart the detail of the reading assessment undertaken this year.

Reading Rosen’s argument was a huge relief – I was not alone. I had looked at the paper with amazement – and a sense of rising panic – wondering quite how some of the questions should be answered. Many of the references in the text were obscure and technical, pushing the capabilities of even the best readers.

And, as Rosen’s points out, some of the inferential question required a broader understanding or life experience which is simply beyond most ten or eleven year olds (except those, he argues, who have had a particular upbringing – middle-class and fortunate, with frequent day trips to national parks. I paraphrase a smidgeon here of course – the best way to do justice to Rosen’s words is to read them in full).

There’s nothing wrong with a challenge, but it should be within reach. Parts of this test seemed downright unfair. Along with the more familiar, systemic criticisms of SATs, Rosen’s line-by-line and word-by-word assault raises further questions about the point of such an assessment, particularly when it seems set up, by design, to create failure, rather than providing a meaningful picture of a child’s reading abilities.

A simple solution would be to scrap SATs and give children a ‘level’ at the end of Year 6 based on the assessment of the teacher. To ensure accuracy and accountability, schools should be expected to have internal systems to moderate and check these assessments. This could then be supplemented by an external check, perhaps with random sampling of schools or individual children.

That way, we would still have good, rigorous data on school performance, but without the hothousing and the strains brought about by the current system. And, who knows, instead of focussing a child’s final primary year on jumping through hoops, we could focus on what really matters and what really makes a difference to life chances: teaching and learning.

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And hello again…

It’s been a while since I posted on here, but it’s nice to be back. For me, writing the blog has has been squeezed out by the realities of work, family and the strange, elusive challenge of doing anything with even the vaguest enthusiasm during the grey month of January. But, fear not, February is round the corner; new life is on its way.

Strange, however, that this drought came at a time where the juggernaut of educational reforms continues apace- with a wide-eyed Michael Gove at the steering wheel, peddle to the metal. Most recently, we have had the start of a curriculum review, plus the emergence of more and more proposals for free schools, alongside a steady creep of other schools adopting Academy status. Oh, and the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb – finger ever on the pulse – made a speech about the importance of Latin.

On a personal note, what is striking about so many of these reforms is that, as yet, they have changed little – if anything – about what happens within my school and within my classroom. As a teacher in a fairly straightforward community school, with the simple aim of taking in the children on our patch and teaching them well; with no plans to change status or to opt out of our local partnerships (nor, for that matter, to sack the French teacher and see if there’s anyone on our patch who can speak Caesar’s tongue), the frantic whirl of reform and change is so distant to be almost other-worldly.

Watching, while the Education Secretary ploughs ever onwards, feels odd – a bit like sitting, feet up, cuppa in hand, gazing at a twisting tornado on the horizon. The only times the Gove-storm has come close to our school was when the posh school down the road – the one that tempts the brightest kids with lap-tops – tried to become an Academy and failed (oh, how we chuckled); when a missive from the man himself said there were various bits of paper and forms which used to be important but were now less so (oh, how our Head cheered); and when we figured out that budgets will be incredibly tight and that the fabled Pupil Premium has turned out to be the most significant – yet considerably less successful – exercise in decoy and deception since Operation Mincemeat (oh, how predictable).

Perhaps I should be grateful for small mercies, for the fact that Gove hasn’t got up close and personal. But I’m not. Instead, I’m left with a mix of trepidation and annoyance. Trepidation because my fear is the worst is on its way – the golden years of investment in community schools are gone. In terms of cuts, we ain’t seen nothing yet.

And annoyance because nearly eight months in, Gove and Gibb have said next to nothing about schools like mine; good schools who open the doors wide to whoever is in their area, with decent staff who care deeply about their children, with parents who give their time to support the school, with deep roots in the community (a word that is hard to define, but you know it when you see it – or when you don’t).

Not a jot has been spoken of the goodness of community schools, funded from the public purse, working successfully with other schools and with local friends and partners. For all the coalition blather about ‘Big Society’, they seem to care so little for what community schools do.

So, a little late I admit, off we head into 2011 – a year of change, upheaval and protest. Let battle commence.

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