The SATS disaster

10 June 2009
The Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday

Labour Ministers are fond of telling us that education is one of the Government’s success stories. They boast of soaring investment in schools, ever rising standards, record-breaking exam results and huge improvements in literacy and numeracy. We are informed that, thanks to eleven years of Labour rule, Britain now has “a world-class” education system, equipping modern generations with the skills they need for the global economy.

But occasionally reality intrudes on this deluge of up-beat propaganda. We have just had such a moment. Yesterday, the House of Commons Select Committee on education issued a report which warned of the damage caused by the testing regime in schools. Contradicting all the Ministerial bombast about the effectiveness of the current approach, this highly-respected Parliamentary watchdog said that “too much emphasis has been placed on a single set of tests and this has been to the detriment of some aspects of the curriculum and some students.” According to the Committee, the obsession with Standard Assessment Tests (SATs) had led only to “an artificial improvement” in results, where pupils are “certified to have achieved a level of knowledge and understanding which they do not in fact possess.”

As I teacher myself in a comprehensive, I can only agree wholeheartedly with these findings. Far from driving up standards, SATs have actually been a disaster. Absurdly complex and bureaucratic to administer, they have taken the genuine task of learning out of education, replacing it with a series of dreary box-ticking exercises. As pupils are remorselessly trained for their SATs, all passion and enthusiasm is removed from schooling. Pupils are no longer encouraged to reach for an understanding of the world around them or a mastery of the English language or a real grasp of mathematics. Instead, they are treated as nothing more than fodder in a culture of official targets, used as means of boosting the political interests of the Labour government.

No matter what Ministers might claim, SATs as presently constructed cannot provide a meaningful measure of individual pupil achievement. In fact, all they really test is the ability of teachers to drill their pupils. Anyone works in schools knows that, through constant rehearsal and revisiting of exam papers from previous years, pupils can be instructed to pass without having a proper knowledge of their subject. In my own secondary school, we are so distrustful of the results form SATs that we often ask the new intake from primary schools to sit our own internal tests, so they we can gauge their true standard rather than the make-believe one ordained in the SAT markings. Such internal tests can be very revealing. On one occasion, when a group of new pupils sat down to take the exam, some of them asked, “Aren’t you going to help us, Sir?” I gave them a negative answer. “That’s wierd, Sir. In our primary, they helped us all the time.”

That is what is really happening with SATs, beyond the official rhetoric. Because schools are now so heavily judged by their performance in SATS and GCSEs, teachers – especially at primary level – feel they have no alternative but to focus obsessively on such tests, spoon-feeding their pupils before each hurdle.

In response to yesterday’s Committee report, the Schools Minister Jim Knight adopted that tone of complacency which is now the default mode of Government members under pressure. “The principle of national testing is sound,” he proclaimed, adding that SATs “are here to stay.” But if he is really so confident in their effectiveness, they why is the Government constantly fiddling about with the testing regime, constantly changing the structure of the tests from one year to the next? Indeed, this appetite for endless tinkering is one of the problems with SATs, creating not only instability but a mood of frustration at continual intervention by Ministers who never seem to work out what they actually want.

The mess of SATs is graphically highlighted by the English tests at Key Stage 2, taken when pupils are about ten years old. This should be a simple assessment of whether a child can read and write properly. But instead it has been turned into a bureaucratic nightmare, plagued by intricate marking schemes and complex technical features. Instead of being asked to write a lively story or convey their understanding of a certain passage of text, pupils have to indulge in wearisome exercises, often tinged with political correct. So they will be asked to produce a leaflet, complete with bullet points and sub-headings, about “giving advice on healthy heating” or “promoting recycling in your neighbourhood.” Alternatively, they will be told to indulge in linguistic tricks, such as writing a letter with different authorial voices. In this way, all the romance and thrill of English is completely lost. Learning has been turned into something functional, worthy, dull – and at times even incomprehensible. Tragically, in the climate of SATS, where everything is spoon-fed in bite-sized chunks, pupils rarely learn to read a book from cover to cover, nor do they gain any understanding of the enriching sweep of English literature. Just as worryingly, they do not even learn proper spelling, punctuation or grammar, since such requirements are deemed to be elitist by the politically correct brigade in charge of education, so few marks are given for them.

It is the same dismal story in the Maths SATS, which are awkward and wordy without being real tests of numerical understanding. Not only do they fail to challenge to the most able pupils but they also put off the least able by their lack of clarity. But such flaws can be seen right across the whole testing regime. The SATs have the remarkable contradictory quality of simultaneously creating an atmosphere of near hysteria in schools while at the same time de-motivating pupils by robbing them of a proper education. By their mid-teens, many pupils of all abilities are thoroughly bored by the whole obsessions with paper tests and therefore do not attach proper significance to their GCSEs and A-levels. In fact, an outsider would be amazed at the casual, often frivolous atmosphere that now pervades some exam halls, with chattering and sniggering all too common. Further disillusion is caused by the woefully poor marking, which often bears no relationship to the standard of work. This is partly because, in an effort to cut costs, some of it is farmed out to markers overseas, especially Asia. I have known SAT results to come back in an envelope with an Indian postmark, where patently inadequate pupils have inexplicably triumphed, and high achievers flopped.

But hopes of reform are distant, for the current system is protected by two powerful vested interests. First of all there is the Government, which – like the old Soviet Union with its fraudulent statistics on tractor production – relies on SATs to uphold the fiction of rising standards. Second, there are the examining boards, like Edexel and QCR, which have turned the testing regime into a licence to print money. At £10 per pupil per test, they are only too eager to keep up the drive for more meaningless tests, continuing to make a fortune on the back of misery in schools.

It does not have to be this way. Of course we need some way of measuring school achievement, but it could be done so much more simply and effectively through a combination of multiple-choice tests carried out by a computer, and proper, old-fashioned exercises in comprehension and calculations. That would leave teachers more time to get on with the proper job of education, so we can inspire our pupils rather than acts as drudges in a sausage factory.

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