Given its prominence in the news and on social media this week, (is that a fronted adverbial btw?) I’ve been thinking about SATs, exams in general, boycotts and children “striking”. I’ve gone round and round in circles and the best I can come up with is “It’s complicated”. For one thing our view will be inevitably coloured by our own experience and that of our children. If we, or they, sailed through with no ill effects, it’s hard to imagine what it might be like for others who may have had an entirely different experience or had similar experiences but reacted in an entirely different way. It’s emotional and consequently really hard to look at things like this objectively
I’m breaking it down into several questions.
- Are tests in general good or bad? – I’d say neutral. Frequent tests (Americans call them quizzes which sounds less threatening don’t you think) help reinforce what you’ve learnt and show you what you haven’t. If they’re a regular part of learning and don’t carry huge significance I can’t see they’d do harm. You just need to make sure kids don’t use them to bully those who do exceptionally well or poorly.
- Are externally set and marked tests at key points in a child’s learning needed? – Possibly. It kind of depends on whether or not you trust teachers to assess accurately and fairly and that in turn depends on whether or not teachers are put under undue pressure which might lead them to manipulate the results. I’ve been under that kind of pressure and resisted. But it made me ill and led me to leaving the profession so this is obviously a big factor. I think we need to decide what these tests are for. GCSEs, and in some places still the 11+ are high stakes exams that affect the student directly. They determine progression routes and they have a stake in them. SATs are to measure the schools and teachers. I’m not convinced they do it well. Most? Many high schools re-test children when they arrive (or even on taster visits) as they don’t really trust the SATs results anyway.
- Do schools handle the SATs well? – Obviously many don’t. We hear stories of weeks or months of drilling in Literacy and Numeracy in year 6, or even before. We hear of the narrowing of the curriculum where Art, music, humanities are barely covered and of multiple practice papers being completed. Does it need to be like this? No. But I can see why schools do it when under pressure. Looking at some of the papers it seems as if they are designed to catch kids out rather than to assess what they know. I used to teach IT to 16yo which was assessed in part by a multiple choice test. The first time I completed one of them I barely reached a pass nark. You had to understand what they meant by the questions and what was required for thge answer so I had to teach test technique if I wanted my students to pass. It wasn’t enough to know your stuff, you had to know how to do the test too. I know there are some schools out there that teach a broad and balanced curriculum and still get good results. I understand the argument that if you deliver the curriculum fully and well that the children will do well in the assessments anyway. I also understand why many schools feel unable to do this, especially when there is a virtual sword of Damocles hanging over them with the thread being the results of their year six children.(And thinking about this, I’d not be especially upset if I thought that any heads and teachers who suffer because a year got poor results were all bad teachers/heads but I’m far from convinced that’s the case)
- Do the SATs test the right things? – This is where I really start to struggle. Somewhere in the loft I have a few of my primary school exercise books. I’ll look them out one day, but I’m fairly sure we didn’t cover some of the things now covered by the KS2 National Curriculum, especially the Spelling & Grammar element. Now, I went to school in the 60s, took the 11+ and went to Grammar School. I took Latin O level so I was at school in what I suspect Gove and I suppose Morgan and Gibb think of as the golden age of education. Tests on a regular basis, tables, class ranking, corporal punishment but definitely not grammar to anything like this extent. And as Michael Rosen is currently telling us, supported by people I would consider to be genuine experts such as David Crystal, much of what is being tested is not especially good grammar and may well be damaging rather than improving children’s writing.
- Oh and finally. Are children unreasonably stressed by this? – Lots of discussion today (I’m looking at you @TomBennett71) about how children wouldn’t be stressed if parents and teachers weren’t stressing them. Not sure that’s really the case. Children pick up on tension whether we try to hide itr or not and some teachers are so stressed by the whole affair that they can’t help but let it seep out, though I grant you that some don’t seem to try very hard. I wasn’t stressed by my 11+ and my kids (now in their 20s) weren’t stressed by SATs. But we all did well and were expected to do well with no pressure. I’ve worked, as a TA with kids who got very stressed and some who just didn’t care. I suspect it’s down to basic character as much as anything.
So. What’s my overall conclusion? It’s complicated. Tests aren’t bad, maybe accountability tests aren’t bad but the content, how we are using the results and the subsequent narrowing of the curriculum is bad but understandable under the circumstances.
Solution? Who knows? I doubt I can be convinced that the current content of the SpaG or the Writing requirements at KS1 and especially KS2 are sensible or needed. I think the way heads and teachers livelihoods can depend on how well children do in these tests is unfair and dangerous. Rationalise the content, remove the threat to teachers/heads and it may settle down. But yes. Really look at the content. I think that is what has really prompted the current actions by parents.
And please ignore any SpaG errors, I’ve not proof read or revised.