A testing regime that impoverishes education

A flurry of complaints from teachers and parents that a recent national year 6 reading test – described by one headteacher as “utterly miserable, scary and quite middle class” – was too difficult has again ignited the debate about the purpose and value of standardised assessment tests (SATs) for young children. It comes in the wake of calls to pause Ofsted’s programme of inspections following the suicide of a headteacher. A high-stakes system of accountability for schools and an obsession with quantifiable targets like SAT results lead to skewed priorities and create perverse incentives. “The entirety of [my children’s] time in year 6 until the day of the test in May is devoted to SATs revision,” says a parent. The immense pressure such a system of accountability places on schools has created the worst outcome of all: the impoverishment of children’s educational experience.

SATs are tests taken in England by pupils in year 2 and year 6 – children aged roughly six and ten respectively – to assess their reading, writing and maths skills. Some teachers and parents were unhappy with this year’s English reading test for year 6 pupils. The paper included texts on a giant bat colony, which was adapted from a New York Times article, a camping trip featuring sheep rustlers and a boy on a remote Scottish island who hears a wolf.

One headteacher, interviewed by the BBC, said that the test included some “GCSE-level” questions and that some pupils did not finish the paper and were left in tears. Others have expressed concerns about the number of words in the paper compared with previous years’ papers, the sequencing of questions and possible cultural bias.

The Department for Education (DfE) said that the tests were “designed to be challenging”. Nick Gibb, the schools minister, said that SATs have to test a range of ability “to make sure that we can show what proportion of children are exceeding the standard” but that they are not meant to be too hard.

Results from 2022 indicated that overall standards in reading, writing and maths have slipped among year 6 pupils in England since the pandemic. They showed that 59% of pupils met the expected level in these combined areas, down from 65% in 2019. By 2030, the government wants 90% of children leaving primary school to reach the expected standards in reading, writing and maths.

There may – or may not – have been a problem with the 2023 reading test. The Department for Education has since blogged that this year’s SATs were no more difficult than in previous years. And no one is arguing against the need to assess children. It is important for parents, schools and government to know how well young people are doing.

The problem is the weight that is given to tests like SATs and GCSEs in measuring schools’ performance.

We wrote this in our recent blog Alternatives to Ofsted:

A high-stakes competitive system results in an obsession with quantifiable targets that skew priorities and create perverse incentives – off-rolling, a focus on some children at the expense of others, a hollowing-out of the curriculum for ‘key’ year groups to concentrate on passing assessments or exams. In short, the impoverishment of children’s educational experience.

from our blog Alternatives to Ofsted

The responses of two parents during a BBC Radio Five Live phone-in about this year’s SATs give a flavour of how the pressure on schools to achieve ‘good’ test or exam results may or may not be passed on to the pupils:

Children came out feeling distraught, anxious and stressed. These three emotions are not what we want to bring our children up to experience. The teachers are stressed because that’s the only measure they have that they can show that they’re doing their job. [The children] want to do well, so naturally that stress is going to be passed down [to them].

Parent 1

Our school puts very little pressure on our children for the SATs. It’s been quite a positive experience.

Parent 2

In a letter to the Guardian newspaper a GP was very clear about the impact of SATs on children:

SATs are designed to be a quick test that takes place on one day in year 6 to assess the teaching standards of the school. The theory is that the children are not being examined, that they should not think or feel that they are being examined, and that they should be unaware of their ‘result’ and feel no stress from the situation. It is the school’s job to educate children and the DfE’s to assess the school. It is not a child’s role to provide emotional support to these adult‑run institutions.

It seems that much of the anxiety and pressure that schools and the DfE feel about standards has been placed squarely on the shoulders of children. My children have gone, and will go, through the ritual. The entirety of their time in year 6 until the day of the test in May is devoted to SATs revision. Almost no education outside these narrow terms takes place. Children feel immense pressure over a nebulous goal.

A letter to the Guardian newspaper, 14 May 2023

Another letter-writer made the point that schools “should be places of joy, escape and ladders to the future. Children deserve so much more”.

We agree.

Image at the head of this article by tjevans from Pixabay.

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