What if SATs were used to educate children?

By | April 19, 2019

This week, to an unsurprisingly tumultuous reception at the NEU conference, Jeremy Corbyn announced that a Labour government would scrap SATs and the new reception baseline tests.  Mr Corbyn, as is his want, didn’t have an alternative to announce, just vague comments about a more “flexible and practical” primary assessment structure.

I thought I’d propose one for him, but let me begin by discussing what happens currently and why I believe this structure is wrong and deserves replacing.

I have total sympathy for replacing the current primary assessment structure.  Its purpose is not to inform future teaching, but to hold schools and teachers to account.  The DfE are clear and unambiguous about this.  As a secondary school teacher, I don’t have the experience of preparing students for and administering these assessments.  However, I do have experience of trying to use the results of the KS2 SATs in a secondary setting.  They are virtually useless.  I want to make it clear that the comments I make in no way are a denigration of the work of my primary colleagues.  This is something they must do because of the nature of the assessments and the high stakes nature of the results on their schools and their own careers.

Students in year 6 take their KS2 SATs in May.  This year they will take place during the week commencing 13th May.  They will take English and mathematics assessments after intensive preparation.  Having spoken to numerous primary colleagues, I know that year 6 up to May, students spend an inordinate time studying mathematics and English in preparation for their SATs often to the detriment of other subjects.  I say again that this is not meant as a criticism of the teachers and the schools but is a criticism of the current centrally dictated assessment structure.  After the SATs, the study of English and mathematics is often reduced dramatically to make room for other subjects and topics.  This means that students would study little mathematics and English from May through to September when they begin year 7 in secondary school.  I’m not saying this happens in every primary school, but I know it does happen.  Either way a student is hot-housed prior to May and they get a standardised score, 100 being secondary school ready, below this means intervention and support will be required when they attend secondary school.  This score reflects what they know (and don’t know) in May of year 6, not in September of year 7 when the secondary school mathematics and English specialists take over.  The data is 4 months old – four months where the learning that gained that score is gradually deteriorating.  Students begin their studies at secondary school not only with gaps identified from the assessments in May but with unidentified and critical gaps from the natural evaporation of knowledge and understanding which takes place whenever something is not studied for such a long period of time.

I argue that this assessment system is a waste of time, money and stress and a massive missed opportunity.  It serves only one purpose, which is to populate school league tables.  Tables that measure school performance and allegedly help parents select schools for their children for the next stage of their school life.  Of course, this free choice is very rare.  “Popular” schools are always oversubscribed and because of the admissions criteria, unless you live in the catchment area anyway, you will have little chance of getting your child into that school.

Now let us think how this could be done with the education of the student as the primary driver rather than purely holding schools and teachers to account.

Imagine if students didn’t take their SATs in May of year 6 but sat some kind of baseline assessment in the first week of their secondary school career in September of year 7.  If secondary schools group students by ability they could use teacher assessment at the end of year 6 to facilitate this or the government could trust secondary school teachers to mark the assessments themselves.  Or course, the government has trust issues when it comes to teachers marking students work, but if the results of these assessments were not to be used to hold that particular teacher and that particular school to account and were to be used to identify what that particular student knows and doesn’t know, why couldn’t the secondary school teacher be trusted?  There could be a moderation system put in place (maybe even cross secondary school moderation) to guarantee quality of marking and assessment.  These results could then be reported but more importantly these results reflect what a student knows now not 4 months prior to this.

All this could be done and dusted within the first 2 weeks of a students secondary school career.  Their secondary school mathematics and English teachers then have an accurate picture of the profile of that student, not one that is 4 months out of date.  If the government still insist in using these assessments to hold schools to account and build league tables, these results could still be used.  Over time, an understanding of the degree of a normal deterioration of learning over the summer holidays could be evaluated, applied and then the results can be used to assess primary schools as well.

To me this develops an assessment structure that still has the facets the government want – the potential to assess schools and teachers – but most importantly a tool for teachers to educate children.  Surely this is what an assessment structure should be about?  The ironic thing is, a version of this was mooted by Michael Gove in 2009!

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