The question is not "Should we have SATS, and are they good for our children?"
"What is it about them that upsets parents, teachers and possibly children?"
Is testing wrong?
Testing isn't wrong per se, it's a natural human response to the environment in its broadest sense. We see, challenge, enquire, test and evaluate. Indeed it's how human beings learn. But formal testing in the classroom is clearly something different. Testing implies a requirement to meet a set standard, which in itself implies a pass mark - and those achieving below that mark are seen to have failed. It's actually this implication of failure at so young an age that concerns professionals, parents and critics. It's precisely this implication of dividing children into successes and failures - and at such a young age - that is so objectionable.
Teachers and Testing
Good teachers - who we should remember are professionals, like consultants, lawyers etc with a wealth of experience and knowledge - measure and test their pupils all the time. Teachers need to test and assess, because how else would they know which level each child has reached, adequately inform future lesson planning, provide additional support for those who need it and, fundamentally, to know they are doing a good job? But unlike consultants, lawyers and other professionals teachers are unfortunate enough to be the never-ending political football, constantly scrutinised, tweaked, justified. When was the last time a surgeon paused during an operation to photograph each stage - not just the unusual - and leave post it notes all over his handiwork with links to NICE guidelines? Do we really respect our classroom professionals so little that once bestowing a qualification upon them we seek to persistently undermine and challenge them on a daily basis?
But formalised, national testing also creates additional work for teachers who need to mark everything to national standards, putting additional strain on schools to ensure their students perform. It's asking them to step back from their own class, their own pupils and from their professional role and take on something which only has value in the school it is administered in - but is somehow "converted" into national data and used as a stick with which to beat them later.
Where governments have gone wrong is making a mountain out of a molehill. Or a national issue out of a uniquely individual one.
Although it's incredibly useful to have an end of Key Stage bench mark, and as part of a transition document for High Schools SATS scores have real individual value along side other important information, that's about it. The Education Department's obsession with measuring everything helps no one. It's as if they honestly believe quantifying something uniquely precipitates an answer- or even the best way forward. But statistics are an extremely blunt instrument- never more so than in education. For starters to compare anything objectively you need to be comparing the same things. You can measure all you like, but if you then attempt a comparison between, say apples and oranges, or inner city schools and free schools, or comprehensives and private schools, pre schools and nurseries and even one nursery and another you will only ever obtain highly subjective results. SATS were a great idea as informal benchmarks, but results should never have been given relevance beyond the school setting.
Students and Testing
Going through life illiterate and lacking in basic numeracy is a bit of a handicap, let's be honest. And few parents would disagree that educational standards have fallen. Whilst it might not make the most scintillating dinner party conversation there is simply no getting away from the fact that I completed O Level AND GCSE papers at 16 - and the O Level ones were in a different league. AS levels followed by A2 are so much easier than the two year course in many respects, if you cannot marshal and learn effectively two years of advanced level work then you won't stand much chance in Law or Medicine either....
But whilst academic success is valuable, testing can only inform on individual progress.
You see, I had a dyslexic four year old who knew the alphabet, could read and write several words from memory and who would have scored highly in pre school assessments. Yet two years later he was struggling and only internal professional observation would have picked up his difficulties. Then there was my autistic four year old who would have failed every test under the sun but developed his own written language despite not reading until age seven. By age nine he had the reading age of a thirteen year old. Neither fit the mould, and in that, neither are unusual. Children are individuals and none come to school without years of unique life experiences.
Then there is the ridiculous situation where the first half of Year 6 is intensive coaching to ensure maximum SATS scores, followed by months of doing very little. It doesn't take a genius to see this is not good preparation for High School, and it doesn't really measure progress either. Formal exam-type testing is incredibly stressful - as my seventeen year old will tell you. Forcing youngsters to sit such tests and telling them how much they matter creates an artificially stressful environment which helps no one. There are easier, better ways to assess progress, which are every bit as relevant to those taking the tests, and even when you use testing, it doesn't have to be stressful. If you remove the formality, the national comparison of results and the burden of expectation on schools and pupils you also eradicate much of the stress.
Government v Teachers
It's a two-way thing though, this whipping up of the concept of testing into a tornado-like reality that was neither intended, nor needed. When SATS were introduced, teachers were so fundamentally opposed to Testing with the capital "T" that they omitted to remember that testing is a normal part of their job. The anti-government sentiment is understandable, and following decades of slipping standards and reduced demands on students it was a bit of a shock perhaps, but opposing SATS rather than working to ensure teachers had a voice in making them work was perhaps not very constructive. Yes the government interferes far too much in schools but some schools do need to move on from a "them and us" attitude and stop seeing achievement and qualification as a threat. There are a lot of things wrong with our education system but raising aspirations and expectations is not one of them.
However if I as a parent cannot abide all the centralised measuring and tinkering, goodness knows what life must be like "at the coal face". Those involved in education must be heartily sick of it - education is a long term process, yet results are repeatedly and inappropriately used to make all kinds of political points, usually over a single parliament. To often they are used to compare completely incomparable schools in utterly different environments and a great deal of money - tax payer money - is wasted in the process.
So what's the way forward?
So test children yes, and re-test them. To facilitate learning you need to know your children to meet their needs. But good teachers do this regularly and in ways the children barely notice, since it's essential to internally measure and assess where your pupils are. But instead of leaving the professionals to administer these assessments instead SATS have become a ridiculous politicised hot potato when they should have been desirable, expected, appropriate - just the norm.
Stop making testing into headline news. Testing is necessary, desirable and mundane. It certainly should be with minimal stress for young children. Testing is about as interesting as peer reviewed medical research. Essential, but really not very exciting, and with even less relevance beyond the environment and timescale they take place in.
Leave testing to the professionals, and down regulate it. It's a sandwich - and a boring cheese one at that. And definitely not a hot potato.
|Cheese Sandwich by dvs on Flickr|