The current debate on SATs has become polarised and vicious. The people who think that without SATs the system will fall apart, standards will fall and primary schools descend into anarchy are of course talking out of their backsides. There do seem to be a lot of them and I sometimes think that the more vociferous on Twitter are engaged in brown nosing activities in case some exciting advisory post comes along with the DFE!
Sorry, that wasn’t a very good start seeing as I’ve polarised the debate a bit more. Anyway, you get the gist and lined up on the other side are people who worry about the effects of testing on children, the dire and absurd conclusions which are drawn from the results by politicians and educationalists who ought to know better, and the sheer cost and bureaucracy of it all. As you can tell, these people are unlikely to be readers of the Daily Mail and supporters of grammar schools!
Having offended everyone, you might like to know that some of us can remember a time before SATs and it wasn’t all bad. Contrary to what some people think, schools managed pretty well, transfer to secondary school at age 11 was just as seamless or clunky as it is today, and teachers did focus predominantly on developing standards in literacy and numeracy. Secondary schools had a purpose in sorting out the capabilities of their intake which was considerably less painful than the current testing regime and it was cheaper. Underpinning all this was the professionalism and competence of teachers. There is another story to be told about how teachers have been de-skilled by political interference in schools but that’s for another time.
Some of us can also remember the widespread use of the 11+ which many advocates of SATs secretly hanker for. I took the 11+. We spent a term doing practice test papers non-stop, the whole test procedure was absolutely terrifying involving a visit to a local secondary school where we were berated by a mad headteacher over eating all of a horrible school meal, and I was so hyper afterwards that I got run over by a car – with nothing but a little bruising for me but I think the driver was quite traumatised!
There was a long wait for results which was another period of anxiety but I found out years later that my dad was told I’d passed by a Liberal Party councillor who was also a teacher (my dad was a prominent member of Basingstoke Liberals at the time). When I got to grammar school we were ranked in our class by 11+ scores and I was allegedly number four in Basingstoke! I’m not bragging but just making an insinuation about the supposed external objectivity of such assessments!
That was a digression but I just wanted to make the point that if society, schools and parents make an assessment important it will be perceived as such by children. Now, I passed this examination along with about 20% of my cohort and the other 80% failed. I still know a lot of those people. I know it was a lamentable predictor of their future performance and their lives but I’m also certain that it disadvantaged some of them. I still think that stress and a sense of failure are key elements of SAT testing and in how it is perceived by children while the 11+ remains a pointless and unnecessary aberration where it persists. I tend to think that is so obvious that it barely needs to be said but I suppose others think differently.
Of course, many people will have switched off by now. They know that years of careful research, pretesting, examiner training and standardisation have made these SAT tests fit for purpose even if they admit the 11+ was not exactly that. They’re talking nonsense of course. The SAT industry works very hard to paint a rosy picture of the assessment but anyone who has had anything to do with them knows just how unreliable they can be. I know about this because, once upon a time, I conducted some confidential research on behalf of some predecessor government examinations quango into massive concerns over key stage 2 English testing. It was a disaster area! The pretesting was conducted with the wrong children, the paper was culturally and socially flawed if not actually racist and the mark scheme had so many options and sub- options that the examiners didn’t have a clue what they were doing. Okay, I know people have tried to address these issues but the fundamental nature of a single assessment, the cultural issues, the convoluted mark schemes and examiners who think they’re meant to act as automatons persists. Funnily enough, every primary head teacher in the land already knows this but only a few are willing to stick their heads above the parapet and say it out loud. That’s understandable given the current educational climate and absurd levels of so-called accountability.
The final, and perhaps the most Monty Pythonish thing to note about SATs, is the degree to which they have become politicised. The necessity of hard edged standards, the notion that competition and cold showers never did anyone any harm and the need to toughen up – as opposed to concerns over well-being and mental health, a fairer society and opportunities based on capacity and skills. You know which side of the fence you’d find anyone from Keith Joseph to Rees Mogg! I partly blame the public schools but you can also see the impact of a politicised education system in academies and privatised services. The mouthings of politicians are just the scum on the surface of an unsavoury soup!
And that’s it really! There was a time before we had SAT testing and since we have had them I have to tell you, writing as someone who has visited loads and loads of schools in the past fifty years, that standards have not risen. Anything you are told about Progress 8 measures or standards over time is utterly chimerical except it’s worse than that because it’s political propaganda which exploits children. Sadly, most teachers today know nothing else. They think that SATs just come with the job which is understandable but wrong. Measuring your carrots never made them longer and it still doesn’t.