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Why SATs and ‘teaching to test’ can be so damaging

Why SATs and ‘teaching to test’ can be so damaging

Teachers have been warning for years that SATs (national Standard Assessment Tests taken at the end of KS1 and KS2, in Years 2 and 6) have damaging consequences for many children in school.

When teaching Year 2 at a different school, some years ago, I advocated disbanding SATS testing. I found that the preparation for these tests began at the start of the school year and, in conveyor belt style, continued into the next. I worried I was neglecting the creative subjects that provided a well-balanced curriculum. The lack of effective feedback did not help children to answer questions that should be a central part in the follow-up to any assessment: Where am I going? How am I doing it? Where to next? This approach is critical to building motivation and persistence in our learners. It is significant that many state schools currently have problems in recruiting Year 2 and Year 6 teachers because of the pressure and expectations surrounding the end of Key Stage testing.

Assessment is an essential part of teaching and learning in every school. It is important to assess children regularly so that we acquire information about their progress and achievement. We may use assessment to gather information about the learner as an individual but often we make comparisons with their classmates, or with pupils of the same age nationally.

But how we assess is critical. Teachers are continually assessing children through their everyday oral interactions, through practical tasks carried out in lessons and through their homework. By assessing children’s academic progress, we are not only building a picture of the learner but also of the effectiveness of our teaching: have we helped children achieve the learning objective? Assessment identifies individual needs and achievements and our tracking system in St Mary’s School monitors progress. We discuss the results and identify pupils who may need support, or pupils who may need further challenges. Indeed, feedback is vital for learning. In his research John Hattie identifies feedback as ‘the single most effective classroom intervention’.

Herein lies one of the fundamental problems with SATS testing. SATS are a snapshot of a child’s learning and there is a lack of recognition of the achievements of children who do not reach the expected targets. Feedback is given as a score with no reference to where improvements should be made, and the child’s progress from his or her starting point is never referred to. SATS are meant to measure pupil progress but in fact are used to rank schools in league tables, taking no account of the school’s intake.

Testing, observing and marking of children’s work must inform the children, parents and teachers of where they are now, but also what they need to improve or challenge themselves with next. How will we help them to do this? In ‘teaching to the test’ there is no time given to explore the educational values we aspire to in St Mary’s School: that all of us can improve as learners and there is no ‘cap’ on what we can achieve. Every child should have an exciting and inspiring education that encourages them to do well and teaches them the knowledge and skills that prepare them to be a ‘well rounded’ individual, who can succeed in life after school.

Mrs Kerry Owens, Deputy Head, St Mary's Junior School, Cambridge