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Sunday, 11 May 2014

Sats a necessary evil?

National Curriculum assessments known as Sats are used to assess the attainment of children attending maintained schools in England. They comprise a mixture of teacher-led and test-based assessment depending on the age of the pupils. The tests were introduced for 7-year-olds for the academic year ending July 1991, and for 11-year-olds in the academic year ending July 1995.

In England, data collected from the assessments at all three key stages are published nationally in performance tables produced by the Department of children, schools and families alongside data for secondary schools relating to performance at Key Stage 4

They were originally introduced as a way of recording each pupil's relative level of achievement but as time has passed it's become progressively more about comparing the performances of pupils, schools and LEAs.

On the face of it there's nothing wrong with this, indeed numbers can only be correctly considered within a context, however this has led to an explosion in the detail and trust placed in school league tables.

Teachers and pupils have arguably been made to feel overly stressed with the pressure forced upon them from schools eager to climb these league tables. School performances and league tables have then exerted enormous influence upon their respective peripheral housing markets with parents desperate to get their children in an "outstanding" school rather than one placed on "special measures".

KS2 SATs introduced the capability for the government to compare the relative performances of pupils, schools and LEAs over time. However, the significant changes to their structure does suggest that these comparisons could be quite questionable.

The primary purpose of SATs was to create a standardised, consistent assessment for all pupils regardless of who their teacher was and indeed where their school was. However, it’s arguable that their primary purpose has seemed to develop into feeding a school league table system, adding stress to pupils and unnecessary pressure onto teachers, detracting from their primary purpose in the classroom – to teach!

The KS2 sats for 2014 commence Monday 12th May. For lots of pupils this week is the culmination of lots and lots of revision taken place during year 6, their final primary school year, including going over past papers and attending after school booster classes. 

The problem is the Sats have become a 'huge deal' for all concerned. The pupils at KS2 are well aware of the significance of Sats and despite the best efforts of year 6 teachers the stress is tangible. 

I know that year 6 teachers around the country will be, or have already, planned lots of exciting 'post Sats' activities including day trips, residential trips and 'leavers' assemblies and discos. This doesn't though, really take away from the fact that year 6 pupils have lost two terms of their precious final primary school year which have been totally dominated by these end of primary school assessments. 

Is this necessary? I know some would argue that externally set and marked exams provide an invaluable mechanism for the academic success of the school in the "core subjects" to be measured, without the possibility of the results being either inflated or manipulated. It is also suggested that the public's right to know the relative success and achievements of the school to which they have entrusted the education of their child, is achieved effectively with benchmarking via league tables. The independence of the external papers arguably adds to public confidence in the validity of the reported information. The exams are also seen as a "tangible" result of the child's primary school career, thus providing a quantifiable outcome, enabling parents to conduct their own benchmarking, e.g. by comparing their child's results against expectations and against other children's results.

Another argument I have heard in favour of Sats is that it helps pupils prefer for the future of 'exams' which awaits them. This is I think a weaker argument because surely KS4 is enough time to prepare pupils for exams not KS2. Thats a bit like saying Year 2, infants (KS1) needs to be tougher to prepare the pupils for the challenges of the juniors (KS2.)

Perhaps the problem arises from the Sats results link to 'league tables,' with this comes the inevitable pressure from school SLTs and Governing bodies for pupils to 'perform.' I don't think there is a year 6 teacher 'worth their salt' who does not already know what levels their pupils are. They would have already have known each of their pupils 'levels' for the end of the year without all of the revision. However, these same teachers feel the pressure to try to get that level 3 pupil to level 4, or the level 4 pupil to level 5. Add into this pressure that level 5 is now the new level 4 and the 'able' pupils are now expected to achieve a level 6 and it is easy to see why SLTS, Governors and teachers feel stressed. Sadly so to do the year 6 pupils who are let us not forget are only 10-11 years old!

So what is the solution? Perhaps moderated teacher assessments which are separated from the political agendas of league performance tables? 

Over to you - are they a necessary evil or just plain evil? What are the alternatives?