Schools are scrambling to prepare children for the new Sats tests to be taken in May. Teachers who have never before ‘taught to the test’ are gloomily conceding that the Government has left them no other option. Children are being drilled in the mechanics of adverbial clauses and long division, forced to spell vital words such as ‘pronunciation’ and ‘hindrance’, and helped to write stories showing their mastery of the passive voice and modal verbs. Headteachers shake their heads sorrowfully. Advisers grimace and say ‘nothing to do with us’. None of this should be happening – and finally there is just a possibility that the madness will stop.
First, came the suggestion of a boycott of baseline testing. Now, at last, there is a call to cancel the KS2 Sats. I watch the signatures grow daily (hourly) hoping they represent the moment when the classroom worms such as myself finally turned and said no.
The only word on the spelling list that Year 6s should learn is ‘sacrifice’ as this will enable them to write to the Education Secretary pointing out that their learning is being sacrificed to a mean-spirited and regressive assessment system.
The new tests and assessments have been designed, not to discover and celebrate what children can do, but to catch them out. Here are just a few examples. It is essential, says the Government, that KS1 children are taught maths using concrete and visual aids such as Numicon and number squares. So which callous wretch decreed that the same children must be deprived of these props when taking their Sats? In my school, children wept because they could see the number squares but were not allowed to use them.
I’d also like to meet the sour-faced creators of the sample grammar test who asked Year 6 children to add suffixes to nouns to create adjectives (clearly a life skill) and then decided that getting five out of six right merited no marks. Likewise I’d love to shake hands with the generous soul who recently decreed nul points for any child misplacing a comma when separating numbers in the thousands in their KS2 maths Sats. Similarly, there’s no mercy for the left-handed child who struggles to join up his handwriting or for the fast-thinking kid who writes brilliantly but forgets her full stops.
Assessment should, as CPRT recommends, ‘enhance learning as well as test it’ and ‘support rather than distort the curriculum.’
Assessment in the CPRT spirit ensures that the children in my class are set a range of appropriate challenges every day. As a consequence, they are all generally making cheerful progress, though some more rapidly than others and some have greater strengths in one area of learning than another. Yes, I’m sorry to say, they are inconsistent: they have been known to go backwards and they even make mistakes. In other words, they are human beings.
The new tests have not been designed with humans in mind, let alone small humans. Rather they have been created by cyborgs for baby cyborgs. If you don’t believe me, watch the bizarre 2016 KS2 assessment webinar from the Standards and Testing Agency.
The STA cyborgs explain why it was necessary to ditch the ‘best fit’ model of levels where teachers, heaven forbid, used their professional judgement to decide if a child had ticked enough boxes to be awarded a level 3c. According to the cyborgs, parents were confused by their 3c kid being able to do, or not do, things that their mate’s 3c kid could or couldn’t do. Clearly in cyborg land, parents had nothing better to do than check that all children assessed at the same level had exactly the same set of skills and knowledge. This is just so ridiculous as to be laughable were it not for what is currently happening in the nation’s classrooms.
In terms of teacher assessment, best fit has been replaced by perfect fit. Now we have to tick all the boxes in order to judge children to be working at the ‘expected standard’. If just one box cannot be ticked, children are classified as ‘working towards’. However, it doesn’t end there. If a child doesn’t tick all those boxes, they will cascade back down the (not) levels potentially all the way to Year 1. Take writing as an example. One of the best young writers I have taught would not qualify even as ‘working towards’ because she didn’t join up her handwriting. Likewise imaginative but dyslexic 10-year-olds will slip down and down because they can’t spell words supposedly appropriate for eight-year-olds such as ‘occasionally’, ‘reign’ or ‘possession’. And, according to the STA cyborgian webinar, there is ‘no flexibility’ on this.
Yet not only is it inflexible, mean spirited and regressive, it is also just not fair. The current Year 6 has only had two years at most to prepare for this newly punitive world of harder work and pitiless mark schemes. And make that only three months in terms of writing where standards have been wrenched up from a level 4b to a 5c. Parents do not know what harsh judgements await their children this summer. If they did, chances are they would support a boycott. As Warwick Mansell, writing in a CPRT blog back in 2014, wisely commented:
The single ‘working at national standard’ – or not – verdict, where it is to be offered, also seems to invite a simple ‘pass/fail’ judgement. This, it is hard to avoid thinking, will set up the view among many children that they are failures at an early age.
And not only the children. Teachers are under tremendous pressure to ensure their pupils reach the new standards in reading, maths, grammar and writing – irrespective of individual strengths or weaknesses. Yet we are supposed to achieve this without allowing these standards ‘to guide individual programmes of study, classroom practice or methodology’ as the STA disingenuously insists. Sometimes I wonder if I’m stupid or perhaps was asleep when a new era of Orwellian doublethink dawned. How on earth do children learn to ‘use passive and modal verbs mostly appropriately’ if I don’t explicitly teach them? How do they learn to add, subtract or multiply fractions without that being a programme of study? Perhaps in some Utopian classroom there is a lesson plan – presumably in something tasteful like quilting – that miraculously transfers this knowledge to children in such a form that they can pass their Sats and meet the ‘expected standard’.
But until someone lends me that plan, I’d rather we all just said no.
Stephanie Northen is a primary teacher and journalist. She contributed to the Cambridge Primary Review final report and is a member of the Board of the Cambridge Primary Review Trust.