We live in testing times. As a parent of two young primary age children, and a secondary school teacher, I have a great interest in the debate around testing and assessment. The primary debate is raging! Fronted adverbials and synthetic phonics are seemingly enough to spark bar-room brawls on social media walls. Pretty much every assessment from Early Years to Key Stage 2 SATS is the target of ire of loathing at the moment and the government are summarily accused of stealing away the childhood of our young children.
The primary assessment regime, from the baseline testing debacle, to the dropping of the KS1 SPaG test, to the mystery at attended the new KS2 scaled scores, is in seeming disarray. So why is it all gone so badly wrong? Hurried implementation, weak consultation, along with the absence of piloting and talking to teaching experts, has seemingly flawed some of these assessments.
Rather controversially to many, I think tests can be useful tools for learning and valuable for teachers. Regular formative testing can be useful and a simple part of what remains an enriching curriculum diet. And yet, I certainly recognise the legion of problems that primary school teachers and parents describe. The glaring issue is that when student assessment becomes a proxy for school accountability, everything becomes distorted and childrens’ learning invariably suffers. As Dylan Wiliam sagely states in the TES just this week,
” Diagnostic assessments – such as as a test of phonemic awareness – can be useful indications of what children can and cannot do. But when the same assessment is used to draw conclusions about the quality of education children have received up to that point, then there is pressure to make sure the students pass the test, robbing the test of its usefulness as a guide to the child’s learning needs.”
Why does this happen? Well, the government have two levers to enact change in school: tests and accountability measures. When they really want things to change they deploy them both at once. This is what primary schools have been facing head-on and at full speed lately. Understandably, primary schools are frightened of the recriminations that attend failure in such high stakes tests.
Whilst schools are blameless regarding the initiation or design of such tests, we can determine how we choose to implement them and I think it is important for us to recognise our power as teachers.
I have two beautiful young children. My eldest, who has undertaken the phonics check, will sit her KS1 SATs (though not the SPaG element of course) in the coming weeks. From my daughter’s perspective, she never knew she had a phonics check. Last year, she was taught brilliantly and the check was little more than, well, a check. We were duly informed and there was little to no stress, nor a distortion of how she learnt and enjoyed school. She loved her teacher!
Very soon she will do some ‘special work’ – that work being her KS1 SATs. She is completely oblivious to this fact and she has been enjoying school a great deal – more interested in a Blue Peter story competition than any test. Her teachers may be stressed, I don’t know, but they are doing a great job of masking it to my daughter if they are.
Hope for better
And yet, given my happy experience, I hear stories of schools acting very differently in the face of such pressures. From a family member, I know of an equivalent year 2 girl who has received multiple SATs papers for homework, with learning being distorted to fuel a mass of test practice and preparation. You can predict the madness that attends older children sitting the KS2 SATs in the selfsame school.
I understand the pressures that attend high stakes tests, and I hope for better dialogue with teachers from policy makers over the assessment regime in the near future, but we needn’t distort what happens in the classroom and supplant great teaching with a misguided obsession with high stakes assessment.
In my anecdotal tale it is clear that schools can react in different ways to these testing times. Whilst we can seldom determine national political policy (we can of course voice our displeasure and lobby for better alternatives), we can control how our children experience such tests. It is clear that teachers and school leaders face a different test in the face of assessment and high stakes accountability, but we have the power to pass that test with the flying colours that we choose.