What are we doing to our children?
More Than a Score, a coalition of organisations, teachers and parents, have been working for the abolition of standardised testing, since 2016, and provide a solid evidence base for their argument, based on research from a number of different organisations and academics.
In order to demonstrate just how meaningless the end of KS2 SATs actually are, they are currently advertising the BIG SATs SIT-IN, on 5th December, where participants will complete a SATs paper in test conditions, just like 10 and 11 year olds have to do every year. They have also produced an online Mini SATs test, which I took this morning.
As soon as I clicked the 2 minute timer, I began to panic and surprise, surprise, didn’t complete all the questions and failed! It took me right back to my GCSE maths exam, which I sat at the age of 38, and needed at least a ‘C’ grade to qualify for entry to university. It was a high stakes test for me and I felt sick at the thought of not passing and having to sit another year of maths before I could re-apply. Thankfully I passed first time but not without feeling huge amounts of stress. At least I was able to understand the need for this as it was necessary for my chosen career.
Year 6 children are only 10 and 11 years old when they sit the SATs, so their career choice won’t be determined by this test. It is worrying however that so many of them think that this will help them to get a good job, when in fact it will have no bearing on them at all. Why are we putting them through this level of stress when it is not needed?
The stress is not just felt by the children! School leadership, teachers and even teaching assistants are all feeling the pressure. It is interesting how the number of maladministration investigations rose from 2,688 this year compared with just 723 last year. In fact, my eldest grandchild had her SATSs scores suppressed for this very reason, resulting in the head teacher leaving the school at the end of the summer term. But is it any wonder that some schools feel the need to help things along the way?
The growing pressure on school leaders to constantly increase scores year on year, irrespective of the differences between cohorts or issues facing schools, such as budgets and recruitment and retention of staff, is just so unreasonable. I heard recently from a group of teachers about how, even in early years, the emphasis is on reading, writing and maths to the exclusion of all else, in order to ensure that at the end of the year children attain better than the previous cohort.
Is there another way?
Finland, one of the top ranking educational systems in the world, outperforms us in so many ways despite their children starting school later and sitting minimal exams. The evidence is out there for better ways of assessing attainment and progress yet the government seems to be blinkered to this. There appears to be little trust in teacher judgement, despite the recent enquiry into the Phonics Screening Check demonstrating that it provided teachers with no new information than what they had already gleaned from their own assessments.
More Than a Score offer an alternative way of maintaining standards through rigorous formative and summative assessments, moderation in and between schools as well as sampling pupils, as opposed to testing of the whole cohort. This is already happening with the monitoring of standards for primary science, so why can’t this happen in other subjects too?
What are we teaching them?
When Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar (SPAG) was first introduced in 2013, my colleagues and I didn’t know much of the terminology ourselves, as the teaching of grammar had been all but abolished in the 1960’s when I was at school, yet we were all perfectly literate and were qualified to degree level. Had the lack of this affected our lives, careers or ability to teach – not one bit! Grammar was absorbed through interactions with teachers and through reading quality texts which then transferred into writing. I’ve not always used phonic terminology with children. Did it affect their ability to read and write – not one bit! Did they leave reception with a love of literature and story telling and able to use a range of exciting openers and vocabulary – yes they did!
Solely for the purpose of the PSC, children are taught to read words that have no meaning. How useful is this? Is this helping them as readers? There is no evidence to suggest that there is any benefit to this test yet there is plenty of evidence against it, amongst which is the confusion caused to children who are already reading for meaning, being taught to read non-words and the time that this detracts from the teaching of the wider literacy curriculum. Katie Jackson, an English and special education teacher, sums up everything that is wrong with the PSC in her article which you can read here.
Where’s the evidence?
In a recent article, Schools Standard Minister, Nick Gibb, bragged about the ‘tremendous achievement’ in relation to the rising scores for the Phonics Screening Check, and went on to assert that “Hundreds of thousands of children are reading better than they otherwise would have done over the past 6 years.”
This assertion is completely untrue. If you compare the scores for reading at the end of KS1, since the introduction of the PSC, you will see that they have not risen in the same way. Surely, if this test is everything he says it is then shouldn’t there be a knock on effect to the wider literacy curriculum? Better readers equate with better writers, after all, yet strangely there hasn’t been any real increase in either reading or writing over the past 6 years.
Wendy Scott OBE, President of TACTYC (Association of Professional Development in Early Years) replied to the article by sending the minister an open letter, castigating him for revealing ‘a startling lack of understanding of effective early literacy teaching.’
This is because he doesn’t understand how children learn to read nor, it seems, the purpose of reading. Reading doesn’t happen in a vacuum and neither does it flourish on a diet of decodable words. There is so much more to reading than that! We read for pleasure to transport ourselves to different worlds, to be scared, excited, to laugh and to cry as the characters, in the stories we read, come to life. We also read to find out information, to follow instructions when making flat pack furniture or when following a recipe and for many, many more reasons. No amount of practising reading individual decodable words is going to make any child a better reader as it has to be done in context to ensure that decoding and comprehension are on a par.
In addition, due to the complexity of the English Language, there are many, many words that aren’t decodable which need to be read on sight, if children are to develop the fluency needed to read effortlessly and focus on understanding the text. Decoding isn’t the be all and end all, as the minister seems to think!
The absurdity of current government policy with regards to standardised tests just beggar belief in the light of information and research from around the world. If you can’t get to the event, please share this far and wide and make your voices heard. There is so much more to education than knowing whether a sentence is interrogative or imperative!