10 October 2008
Is time up for Sats? The summer marking fiasco left the government embarrassed, and parents, teachers and pupils fuming. But, argues Conor Ryan, the controversial tests have raised standards and should continue to play a role in school assessments
These are testing times for the national tests popularly known as Sats. Schools Secretary Ed Balls had to give written weekly updates on this year's tests during August, after serious delays in delivering the results.
These have now put back the publication of primary league tables by three months, a hugely embarrassing development for the government. The US company responsible, ETS, has lost its contract. And Lord Sutherland, a former chief inspector of schools, is charged with reporting on what went wrong. Computerisation and a wrangle over whether examiners should be trained personally or online are currently being blamed.
Whatever the reasons, the chaos surrounding the Standard Assessment Tests has given impetus to calls for an end to the £50m a year testing programme, amid claims that English children are the most tested in the world. Yet English pupils face only two sets of compulsory externally marked tests, at ages 11 and 14 – key stages 2 and 3 – in English, maths and science, although many schools also use optional tests in other years. Teacher assessments are compulsory at seven. But because many pupils sit external GCSEs, AS and A2 exams in quick succession between the ages of 16 and 18, critics say youngsters are over-tested. And their results are aggregated in league tables, which opponents blame for pupils doing too much test preparation.
An academic review of primary education, led by Cambridge Professor Robin Alexander, one of the 'three wise men' appointed by the Conservatives to review primary schools in 1991, is nearing completion. Claiming to be 'the most comprehensive such investigation since the publication of the Plowden Report [which heralded child-centred teaching] in 1967', its interim reports have concluded that there has been a 'decrease in the overall quality of primary education… because of the narrowing of the curriculum and the intensity of test preparation'.
Meanwhile, a government-commissioned review of primary education by former Ofsted inspector Sir Jim Rose is expected to propose an overhaul of the primary school curriculum, with more emphasis on traditional teaching methods and a new place for modern languages at Key Stage 2. It is producing an interim report later this month.
Many education academics in England still oppose the school reforms of the past 20 years, as do the teaching unions. Last month, academics at Bristol and Durham universities claimed that testing was distorting science teaching. But there are less strident critics too. The Commons select committee for children, schools and families, while recognising that a 'certain amount of national testing at key points in a child's school career is necessary', has objected to the multiple purposes for which testing is used.
It argues that measuring pupil attainment should be decoupled from school accountability. Even the head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, Ken Boston, whose responsibilities for test regulation have been transferred to a new quango, Ofqual, has suggested that national tests could be replaced by a small sample of pupils.
Yet these dual purposes have arguably made a positive difference. For, as well as providing the only annual objective external measures of primary school progress, the national tests have undoubtedly helped improve schools. They have not done so alone: regular inspection and performance tables introduced by the Conservatives in the early 1990s have played their part, alongside some of Labour's national targets.
Combined with a stronger focus on traditional teaching of the 3Rs, this accountability has led to significant improvements in test scores. In 1995, 49% of 11-year-olds reached level 4 and 45% did so in maths. After an outcry about low standards, Labour declared that level 4 should be the 'expected' standard for children, and set ambitious targets. Although those targets were missed, they did drive real improvements. By this year, the proportion of 11-year-olds making the grade had risen to 81% in English and 78% in maths, with 72% achieving that level in both subjects. Around 100,000 extra pupils each year make the grade at 11 compared with 1997, as a result.
Perhaps more significantly, the improvements have been greatest in the schools with the poorest achievement. Schools Secretary Ed Balls recently announced that just 475 secondary schools had fewer than 30% of their pupils gaining five good GCSEs including English and maths this year, compared with 638 in 2007 and 1,610 in 1997. He wants this to be the minimum standard for all, with closure or academy status forced on those that don't reach this level by 2011. Similar floor targets introduced by David Blunkett in 2000 saw significant improvements over the following five years.
While the National Challenge – the programme to help fund improvements – has angered the schools identified, the setting of minimum standards does make a difference. And it has also had significant, if less publicised, success in primary schools. In 1997, more than 6,000 primaries – one in three – failed to get 65% of their pupils achieving the expected English standard; by 2007, this had fallen to just under 1,500.
As importantly, many heads recognise that test data help lift standards. The Specialist Schools and Academies Trust compares pupils' attainment in national tests at 11 with their likely GCSE achievement, showing the progress schools make compared with similar schools. 'Externally standardised tests can help us to standardise teacher assessments and set reliable benchmarks which enable us to know better where the best practice is, and from this help replicate it,' says David Crossley, head of achievement networks at the trust. 'If we think differently about standardised tests they could be seen to support far greater use of teacher assessment too, as they effectively moderate it.' The Department for Children, Schools and Families uses a more complicated value-added formula which helps to inform Ofsted school inspections. Both measures require Sats data.
Even so, many believe children are over-tested and losing out on other activities as a result. This is why the new exam regulator, Ofqual, is considering a more flexible GCSE system, which could involve pupils taking most exams, often in modules, by the age of 15. At the same time, there is more emphasis on English and maths at GCSE, with new functional skills tests being introduced for those who take vocational diplomas.
Some believe this should spell the end of Key Stage 3 tests. John Dunford, general secretary of the Association for School and College Leaders, wrote recently: 'When they are introduced in 2010, they will tell us all we need to know about how well young people can read, write, do maths and use computers. So 2010 is the year when KS3 tests should be abolished.'
At the very least, more schools could sit their pupils for Key Stage 3 tests in Year 8, at the end of their second year of secondary school. Although favoured by the Liberal Democrats, abolition would be more difficult, as the tests remain an important progress indicator for improving low-attaining schools, including academies.
GCSEs and A levels already provide significant external accountability in secondary schools. So, the bigger question concerns primary school tests. Charles Clarke replaced the Key Stage 1 national tests in 2004 with internally marked teacher assessments. Other parts of the United Kingdom do things differently: Wales has replaced tests with teacher assessments and 'skills tests' at the age of ten. Teacher assessment is used in Scotland, with the results published, and optional tests are offered to schools in Northern Ireland.
However, there remains a political consensus in England about the need for external testing in primary schools, although the Conservatives have asked Sir Richard Sykes, former rector of Imperial College London, to investigate possible reforms. The shadow schools secretary Michael Gove told the Conservative Party conference that he wants less testing; he has already proposed replacing the Key Stage 1 assessments with a single reading test. The government is itself trialling a new approach at both Key Stage 2 and 3. 'We are investigating how testing can better track the individual progress of every child,' Schools Secretary Ed Balls told the Labour Party conference last month.
In the 'Making good progress' pilot, 50-minute single level tests, which resemble music exams in their progressive nature, are being trialled alongside one-to-one tuition and regular teacher assessments, as part of a wider programme to 'personalise' the curriculum and lessons. Teachers enter pupils for a particular level only when they are confident they can achieve it, although all pupils would have to be tested before leaving primary school. As a result, not every pupil takes the same end of primary school tests at the same time: they might even take several level tests between the ages of nine and 11. The best results for each child are aggregated in performance tables.
Yet the first trials, with 42,000 pupils last December, had unexpected results, including an abnormally high failure rate. Ministers are confident that the 36,000 pupils who took a second round in June will have more credible results thanks to preliminary dry runs.
But while the government insists that teachers like the new, shorter tests, unions fear they will mean more, not less, national testing. Dr Chris Whetton, assistant director of the National Foundation for Educational Research, warns that they could lead to more teaching to the test and encourage pupils to rest on their laurels, having completed the test. They could also cap achievement: if a teacher enters a pupil for level 4, they cannot score a level 5 on that test, no matter how good they are.
So Balls is being cautious. 'I am not going to rush on making good progress on the single-level tests,' he insists. However, there is official enthusiasm in the DCSF, not least because officials believe teachers might enter many of the low attainers who don't currently reach level 4 at 11 in level 3 tests aged ten, allowing them to reach level 4 more readily at 11.
Ministers must be careful, however, that in their zeal to reform the primary tests they don't end up engineering their destruction through over-complexity. There are alternatives: they could reduce testing by confining external tests to English and maths, and assessing science within schools. They could make the progress tests less onerous by continuing to allow pupils to achieve their optimum level in a single sitting. In any case, they are likely to simplify how the resulting information for each school is presented to parents by combining in-school data with test and inspection results in a school scorecard similar to that used in New York. Whatever happens, they will have to address criticisms about the quality of marking, and avoid a repeat of this year's administrative fiasco.
It is a tall order. But the past two decades of greater accountability have been good for standards, particularly in those schools that were once bedevilled by low expectations. No government can afford a return to the days when the true achievement of primary schools was known only to its teachers.
Conor Ryan is a former senior education adviser to Tony Blair and David Blunkett www.conorfryan.blogspot.com