So the Conservatives have won the election and we must wait and see how vigorously they will implement their manifesto pledges. As the exit polls were announced on election evening I was with a secondary English teacher friend. She is totally unimpressed that Conservatives have said that children will be expected to retake SATS in year 7 if they don’t reach the required standard in year 6. The details of requirements are not clear but I sympathised with my friend. Who wouldn’t? Trudging through all the dreary preparation necessary to pass those darned things is hardly the best use of remedial time in year 7. It is an appalling idea, a time consuming distraction. After all there are pretty simple and quick tests of progress in literacy and numeracy that can do the job perfectly well.
However, before we get right on our high horses let’s pause a minute and look at it from the politicians’ perspective. They want to ensure the weakest students get the help they need to progress in the most fundamental areas. Politicians asked the education establishment to produce tests which will check students’ numeracy and literacy. It might be very naïve of the politicians but why on earth should they doubt that SATS do what they say on the tin? If the sort of tasks set in SATs are the only way to test numeracy and literacy progress then surely that is what all secondary teachers are doing anyway? After all they must surely be tracking the progress in literacy and numeracy of their weakest students. If preparing for SATs style tasks is not necessary to either aid or monitor progress then why are they being used in the first place at KS2?
Anger seems directed against politicians for wanting to ensure kids make progress but it is clearly at least partly misdirected. Rather than getting angry at naïve (but actually probably well meaning) politicians why aren’t we directing our anger at tests that are so poor that one has to teach to the test at the expense of actually learning numeracy and literacy? If we accept that some form of external tracking of progress is going to happen, why aren’t we directing our energies towards trying to make it better?
Rather than screaming venom at rather hapless, naïve politicians, why aren’t we asking questions about why so many modern tests and exams seem to require enormous amounts of teaching to the test? This is a very big issue with so many exams from KS1 to A level. A secondary history HoD told me recently she spends 40% of the GCSE time training students to pass the exam. Another told me that it then made no appreciable difference to student’s performance at A level whether they had done the GCSE with all that training or skipped most of it by doing the IGCSE!
Obviously some of our assumptions about effective assessment are wrong. Why aren’t we using our professionalism to work out better forms of testing? Why aren’t we being more critical of the tests we have? Why are we blaming politicians while offering no alternatives? It is much better to come to decision makers with an alternative solution than to appear to want to duck accountability. If SATs are wrong for KS3 then why do we think they are any better at KS2? Let’s start asking questions about what really works. Let’s start seeking better answers. Let’s be professionals!