SATs: to test, or not to test

Over the Easter weekend the various teaching unions have their annual conferences. 

The NUT, in particular, has several resolutions based on the current tests in primary schools. The union has said that the ‘testing culture’ is damaging children, and labelling them ‘successful’ or ‘failing’ is making it harder to motivate and educate pupils. The government say that testing is important to ensure all children leave primary school with a good grasp of English and maths.

There are two NUT resolutions which could see teachers boycotting this year’s primary tests, including baseline tests, year 1 reading check and KS1 and KS2 SATS tests. The resolution says that the tests have a ‘detrimental effect’ narrowing the curriculum and ‘limiting the educational experience for pupils.’

Below is a comment from Professor Dave Putwain, Edge Hill University who has researched pupil stress and primary SATS tests. His comment examines whether to test or not to test and also gives references for his evidence base.

Comment from Dave Putwain, Professor of Education, Edge Hill University:

“Mandatory National Curriculum tests, or SATs, first introduced in 1990s have polarised opinion. From one perspective, one could ask, isn’t it important to know what children can do when they start school, and what progress they are making? From another perspective, one could argue that education is far more than can be measured on a test, and that defining learning in terms of test scores offers a very narrow definition of constitutes learning. So, where does the balance lie, and what is the way ahead?

Tests in themselves are neither inherently good, nor inherently bad. In themselves, they do not have the capacity to damage learning, or to limit education. Tests are simply a tool that allows the assessment of a children’s capacity in a certain domain at a particular time. Whether tests are effective in doing this depends on factors to do with the domain (can it be tested?), the test (is it fit for purpose and reliably marked?) and the child (can they demonstrate their capacity in a test format?). Blaming tests for narrowing learning is misplaced.

The issue is how tests, or to be more precise test scores, are used. In English primary schools, National Curriculum tests are used as a measure of school accountability, to ensure that schools and teachers are doing a ‘good job’ in educating children. Some people might reasonably argue, what is wrong with this? Isn’t it important to identify if schools are more or less effective?

There are two issues that need to be raised. First, is whether it is accurate to judge the effectiveness of schools and teachers on children’s test scores. This is an outcome that teachers can only partially control. Imagine if you worked at an aquatics shop. Every time that you sell a goldfish to a customer you explain how to properly care for their fish. However, your capacity and reputation depends on whether the goldfish thrives in its new environment. You are held responsible if the fish dies even if the customer does not follow your instructions. To a certain degree the analogy with teachers is the same. Teachers are judged on things beyond their control.

Second, is what kinds of behaviour are incentivised by linking test scores to judgements about school and teacher effectiveness. If you were a journalist and given a pay rise every time you produced an article in Arial font and pay penalty for every article in Times New Roman, then you follow the money. Similarly, if teachers are judged on test scores then they arrange teaching and learning activities in such a way to try and get children to perform their absolute best. As the best way to get good at anything is practice, accordingly teachers have to dedicate a large amount of classroom time towards practice tests. Inevitably, this means other elements of the curriculum become squeezed out.

Although teachers try very hard to try and shield children from the pressures that they are under and to play down the importance of National Curriculum tests, children do pick up them. Emotion is contagious, parents may inadvertently play up the importance of tests with encouraging comments, and simply the amount of practice tests signals to children their importance. Despite the best efforts of teachers, the high-stakes nature of National Curriculum tests is pervasive. It cannot be avoided.

The effect on children is mixed. Some children thrive under pressure whereas others choke. For the children that choke, tests will not be a true reflection of their capacity. There is a danger that the experience of underperforming becomes a pervasive exam anxiety that could hinder educational progress all through secondary school. The reasons why children respond differently in tests are complex and varied, but largely boil down their beliefs about themselves as learners. One might reasonably question whether it is appropriate to place children in such pressured testing situations. Some might argue that these are same pressures that one faces throughout the rest of their lives and these are opportunities to build resilience. Others would argue that we should be trying to create a more inclusive society.

To summarise, the evidence does show that National Curriculum tests have a narrowing effect on the curriculum and limit learning, and that some, but not all, children react negatively to testing situations. However the issue is not the tests, but the accountability purposes for which they are used.

The solution is simple. De-couple tests from accountability. Tests can be used to measure children capacities and progress in a less pressured way to reduce the likelihood of negative reactions. Develop ways of assessing school accountability by measuring the effectiveness of teachers directly, not through children’s test scores.”

NOTES: The evidence base:

Connor, M.J. (2001) Pupil stress and standard assessment tests (SATS). Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties, 6(2), 103-111.

Hall, K., Collins, C., Benjamin, S., Nind, M., & Sheehy, K. (2004) SATurated models of pupildom: assessment and inclusion/exclusion. British Educational Research Journal, 30(6), 801-818

Putwain, D.W., Connors, E., Woods, K.A., Nicholson, L.J. (2012) Stress and anxiety surrounding the Key Stage 2 Standard Assessment Tests in English schoolchildren. Pastoral Care in Education,30(4), 189-302

Troman, G. (2008) Primary teacher identity, commitment and career in performative school cultures. British Educational Research Journal, 34(5), 619-633.

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