Thursday, 14 May 2009

SATs tests...the work of the devil or a power of good?

We - that is my year 6 class and I - are currently in the midst of the key stage 2 SATs tests. For those of you who don't know, or who are of the generation, like me, that doesn't actually remember ever being tested on anything in primary school, SATs are the tests all 11 year old kids sit at the end of their primary schooling. The idea is that we can assess how well they have progressed during their time in school thus far and use the data to judge an individual school's success or shortcomings. The school's results are published and used to sort an area's schools into a league table to gauge them.

These tests have long been the source of much tension and controversy between teachers, politicians, academics, parents and, of course, children. It appears to me that the majority of people think that these tests are an incredibly bad idea: they stress children out; they stress teachers out; 11 years old is too young to be dealing with such pressure; they cause schools to 'teach to test' and therefore limit a creative and holistic curriculum; they create unfair competition between schools; the results do not fairly reflect the whole picture of a school; the results are not always accurate, as witnessed in last year's marking debacle.

I have a guilty secret though. I am firmly in the minority of primary school teachers that wholeheartedly supports the tests. Let me make it absolutely clear right now though that I absolutely do not approve of league tables for schools based solely on attainment. A school should be judged on how far a child progresses from when they enter school to when they leave school, not on whether it can produce a percentage of children that achieve some arbitrary level of 'normalness' that is used simultaneously and indiscriminately whether you live in High Wycombe or Moss Side. The teacher jargon for measuring an individual child's progress is 'value added'. I believe that this is what counts; a child should leave school having made the most progress they can from where they began. This is what education is all about for me: improving yourself; broadening yourself; moving forwards.

However, I do not accept the 'it stresses children and teachers out' argument. I do my utmost to remove the stress of the tests from the children despite the fact that the catchment area of our school means that we have to work damned hard all year to achieve results in line with what is deemed the national average. We practice, we discuss, we devise strategies for achieving the best we possibly can. By the time the tests come around, the children are anxious to do well but they are so well versed and familiar with testing that it doesn’t seem that much of an ordeal. They set themselves targets, with my help, and they try to reach them. And I have never yet encountered a child that has not left primary school with a higher level of literacy and numeracy as a direct result of having sat those tests.

The trouble is that many primary school teachers are of my generation. If I'm honest, we were not taught particularly well during the 70s and the 80s. How many people that are over 25 or so can explain what a subordinate clause is, or how to use a semi-colon correctly, or use maths in a fluid and flexible way that suits your own way of thinking and the situation? I had to relearn all of that when I was training - before that I'd used scraps of knowledge gleaned from the occasional visionary teacher and pure gut-instinct. It must be said that many teachers also don't really know how much about this stuff and feel very threatened when they are compelled to teach it. Surely, then, it is a good idea to put concrete things like tests in place to ensure that teachers sort their subject knowledge out and make sure that they teach children to the best of their ability rather than bumbling along safely tucked up in their own comfort zone? The tests create a mechanism of accountability that teachers cannot avoid by hiding behind wooly, half-baked and faddish theories. They have to teach children basic crucial skills that can be measured and that will help them for the rest of their lives. The pressure is not, or should not be, on the children; the pressure is, and should be, on the teachers to do a good job. That pressure is on almost everyone else in all types of jobs in all types of industries because they are paid to deliver certain things. We are paid to educate children, and it is fair to expect us to do that as well as we possibly can. I am certain that there is no greater feeling of achievement or satisfaction than that which is found from helping a child achieve or even surpass their expectations. That alone is worth a bit of pressure.

And since when has it been wrong for anyone to experience pressure? We're all under some degree of pressure pretty much all of the time. Is it not good to teach children to absorb this, cope with it, turn it to their advantage? I find that most children actually enjoy these challenges; they like to measure how far they have come; they like to know what to do next to progress.

The danger is, of course, that some teachers turn the pressure that is on them to do a good job onto the children in their care. Cheating in these tests is incredibly common. Every year I hear many stories of teachers feeding answers, changing scripts, just generally not doing things by the book. Who gains from that? I think that it shows utter contempt and disrespect for the children and, for that matter, for the role of a teacher in society. If we are working in a system of testing, then lets at least make it raise standards of learning and teaching rather than it being just a game that is to be won at all costs. And, believe me, the motivation for teachers cheating in these tests is not to make the children feel better about their results, it is simply to paint themselves in a better light and to avoid recrimination and pressure from the authorities because they haven't been doing their job properly. I've never cheated in a SATs test, and if I was ever asked to, I would refuse without hesitation.

So, next year the headteacher unions are threatening to boycott the SATs tests. This is because they are fed up of being judged failures or successes against those arbitrary percentages that are deemed average. They want to be judged on what their children have actually achieved, and fair play to them. The science SATs, which were easily the most unpopular of the tests mainly because they are pedantic and poorly thought out, have already been scrapped. The government appears to be taking the system apart slowly to avoid any sudden embarrassing u-turns. What worries me, though, is what we'll do to avoid lazy, dumbed-down and faddish teaching instead; are we seriously saying that we'd prefer to raise up another semi-illiterate and innumerate generation that doesn't have the skills they need to learn and live their lives? Just because teachers don't want to be stressed out? I think we all need to get our acts together and learn how to teach children what they need to know and not be ashamed of doing a good job.

But then again, maybe I'm wrong.

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