A Rejection of SATs Resits

In Debates and Polemics by Alex Quigley6 Comments

In this past week we have heard of a raft of new policies emerge from the Department for Education (DfE). Clearly, some storms of disapproval circled the EBACC proposals and the prospect of more testing for young children. The proposal that stood out to me, as a secondary school English teacher, is the plan for students who have not achieved the requisite standard in literacy and numeracy in primary school to resit their SATs examinations in their first year of secondary school.

The details of the exact policy still remain unclear, with the policy not going out to consultation until the new year. Provisionally, it states that students who do not achieve a Level 4 on the current SAT examinations (of course, we do not even know how the new, tougher SATs will be graded yet) will be the select few who will undertake the resits. The estimated total of students in this position is circa 100,000, but by exempting SEND students, it will likely reduce the national total; however, the logistics and the prospective costs remain worrisome.

You can all too easily picture the scene: it is the middle of year 7 and little Neil is being taken out of his Art lessons and his Geography lessons to do some resit SATs prep. He would be swiftly removed from his normal English lessons – no Beowulf and no Shakespeare for Neil – to better remember the nuances of a clumsy examination in his hastily created ‘special resit’ class.

Neil will no doubt receive stacks of extra literacy and numeracy from strained secondary teachers, but it will be targeted at an examination that is disconnected from much of their new key stage learning. The selfsame teachers will be making a rushed attempt to better prepare their students for an examination that is largely alien to them.

I understand that an explicit focus on helping struggling students like Neil to catch up, but I part company with the government when it comes to how we should support such children to improve. I simply don’t think an alien exam will do the trick – it is the wrong lever to pull if the DfE want to change behaviours in secondary school.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) Toolkit is now a well-known tool for school leaders to guide their pupil premium spending and their whole school interventions. The evidence from the EEF toolkit fires a warning shot about resitting like this. ‘Repeating a year’ (although it is a slightly different proposition to resitting examinations in this way) is proven to be one of the few ways that we can actually damage the development of our students – see here. As we know, more testing often does not equate to more, or better, learning.

In stark contrast, the EEF Toolkit lights the way to what interventions truly help our struggling students. There is now a raft of literacy and numeracy interventions, like ‘Switch-on Reading’ or the ‘Catch Up Numeracy’ project and many more, that schools could focus their time and resources upon to better support their students. These interventions can be constructed in a way that doesn’t intrude on the curriculum like a SAT resit inevitably would, such as undertaking them in registration time etc.

The latest EEF project to launch regional support in the North East to access the best literacy interventions – see here – is a clear signpost for how we could influence schools to have a more effective approach for the students who need it most at the point of transition. Maths Hubs would surely prove an ideal vehicle for numeracy? If the government wants oversight, then schools should report their transition interventions for any such students when the inspector comes calling.

More frequent, high quality teaching of literacy and numeracy is desirable for some students. Many schools, like mine, withdraw a small number of struggling students from studying a Modern Foreign Language at the point of transition, to undertake more literacy learning first. The crucial difference here is that the learning is tailored to the needs of individual students that is best decided upon by the teachers who know them best. Importantly, it can be better synchronised with the curriculum of the rest of year 7 to ensure a smooth reintegration later on.

As the government knows all too well, given their removal of GCSE resits because of alleged ‘gaming’, examination resits and high stakes testing can sometimes prove a blunt tool, with negative unintended consequences. Do we want to experiment with at least half a school year devoted to revising and recapping a test when better approaches are proven and available?

With this policy, we face potentially more bureaucracy, more testing and more limitations on what schools can do best for their own children. I am not against testing per se – I am against bad testing. My instinct is that this policy will go badly and not get to the root of the issues for our students. By sourcing the best evidence and sharing it, I am sure we can provide a better solution. 

Comments

  1. It is interesting that you quote the Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit on the negative effects of students repeating a year. What I find interesting is that, if the evidence against it is so compelling, why do so many countries have a system which allows for it? Having taught in countries which operate such systems, I would suggest that the researchers have not taken into account the motivational effect of the desire to be promoted, which leads to higher attainment and greater effort across the board. The UK system allows children to drift, to be, quite frankly, lazy – failing to do homework, failing to bring books to school etc. In most of continental Europe, parents and pupils alike are aware that laziness could result in not being promoted. It does away with the need for detentions and teacher nagging (leading to confrontations) which are features of the British system – the onus is on the child and their parents. Teachers in most of continental Europe can be reasonably confident that children who fall behind are doing so because they genuinely have difficulties. Interventions can be arranged accordingly. In Britain, in my experience, the average bottom set is made up of only a small number who genuinely try hard but find the work difficult. The others are those who have fallen behind as a result of laziness in the past and yet have been moved up regardless. They often realise that it is now too late to catch up and become disruptive as a result.

    1. Author

      Ok, so you pose a hypothesis about repeating a year, but you offer no actual evidence. Your notion of what the Uk system allows appears to be sweeping generalisations that once more have little substantive evidence. By simply judging entire school systems on our own anecdotal experience we aren’t going to stand up against a broad evidence base.

  2. Point taken – I’m not claiming my ideas are anything other than a hypothesis which may not be true – I have not researched the issue. But my main point was wondering whether the Education Endowment Foundation looked into whether knowing that moving up a year was not automatic might have an effect on overall effort and attainment in those countries which operate such a system. Many countries do not move pupils up automatically and I think it is somewhat arrogant to claim that we must be right and they must be wrong.

  3. Thanks for this post, Alex. We seem to have drifted into another turbulent time for educational policy. I’m in full agreement of your point about a resit not being sufficient to raise standards and ensure students to make good progress in Y7. I’ve taught either side of that KS2/KS3 transition and have serious concerns that another test is being implemented to show improved results.

    From my personal experience in Secondary, removing students on a regular basis to target gaps in their knowledge around reading is essential in order to help them access the curriculum. Most engage really well with interventions once they can see the positive impact it has on their learning. I can’t imagine for one moment, however, that students (or their parents!) will appreciate being removed from mainstream to work towards a test they failed the previous summer. I’m sceptical as to what benefit this will have for our students and agree that there must be a better way.

    Thanks,
    Josie

    1. Author

      I don’t doubt crucial interventions for reading are essential. This policy though isn’t really an intervention to improve anything. We all know that in reality it will distort lots of things and prove ineffective.

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