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Examinations, Examinations, Examinations

This post was first published on the 3rd May 2016 here, on Labour Teachers.

Sometimes it feels like the government’s main three priorities are examinations, examinations and examinations, and this fact has certainly led to many people involved in education to express their disagreement and disappointment with the system.

Most recently, a large number of people with children of a primary school age have chosen to keep their children off school in protest against the new SATs test their children will sit. This has caused me to spend some time thinking about this, and try to put together some views.

Exam factories

One of the leading criticism of these tests is that it drives schools to shrink their curriculum and focus heavily on the content which will be examined – meaning subjects like art, music, history etc get widely ignored and children miss out on an important part of their education. I can certainly find agreement with this, however I think this is already an issue with the SATs as they stood, so it doesn’t seem to warrant the furore of the new tests, which can only compound an already prevalent problem.

What are they for?

This is a key question,  and I think that a different answer to it would lead to a different outcome. The tests as a marker for informing future teachers of a students ability are very helpful. The tear that SATs were boycotted we saw real problems with the grades reported by primary schools as there were massive inconsistencies from school to school. However, this argument alone seems to be silly, as what we see often is that students primed and drilled from the test from September to May achieve well, but then do no more maths from May to September and often regress. If this was to be the sole reason then surely they could be abolished totally and secondary schools could complete diagnostic tests on entry?

The other answer to this question is to measure school performance, and this is a real can of worms. It is this exact fact that leads to the exam factory conditions and the gaming the system and as such causes a load of problems. The other side of it is, however, that there needs to be some way of ensuring that schools are doing what we expect them to do. I don’t know what the answer is, but I tend to think high stakes testing is not the answer.

Is it just a problem with SATS?

No, all the issues outlined above are transferable to GCSE and A level exams. Again, I don’t have an answer, but I think that there must be a better way to treat 16 and 18 year olds than to make them sit high pressure, high stakes, examinations at a time of increased hormones knowing that if they go wrong that could seriously affect their life chances.

I don’t have the answers, but I do feel that there are answers and our job in opposition is to find them and present them to the public, showing that if they vote differently in 2020 we can give them a better way.

  1. May 6, 2016 at 5:42 pm

    I have yet to work at a school in 20 years where diagnostic tests are NOT carried out at the beginning of year 7, irrespective of the presence of SAT scores

    • May 6, 2016 at 7:31 pm

      Indeed, I had a discussion last year with some primary teachers who asked “how would you feel if sixth forms tested your y11 students on entry?” I thought “I head up KS5 N’s we always diagnostic test on entry!”

  2. May 7, 2016 at 6:14 am

    Good article, couple of thoughts.
    In my experience, we always test Year 7 on entry and I believe most Secondary schools take very little notice of SATS results in terms of actually planning and teaching in Year 7. All they are really used for is as a baseline for measuring progress across KS3&4 which once again comes back to issue of monitoring school performance.

    I’m not sure I agree that the situation is the same at GCSE and A level, though. The big difference is that these qualifications matter to the student – they go on the CV. And although these high stakes tests cause stress, I think by the age of 16, they are a powerful motivator to work. I’ve seen plenty of students who have knuckled down in Year 10/11 – I don’t honestly think it was a new-found love of learning that changed their attitude…

    But at age 10/11, it’s a different story. The actual results don’t make any difference to children’s lives in the long run, and neither should they – they still have 7 years of schooling left.

    So I come to the conclusion that SATS are only really there to measure schools. Which feels wrong because they don’t benefit the individual student. But like you, I struggle to find the right solution because I accept that schools need to be accountable to parents and taxpayers alike and therefore their effectiveness needs to be measured. It feels like a system based purely on teacher-assessed levels could result in a whole lot more gaming of the system.

    • May 7, 2016 at 6:45 am

      Nice insights, thanks for your comments. It is a really tough one, I agree a system based solely on TA would produce a lot more gaming. I wish I had a coherent answer!

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