Get rid of tests? Which ones?

Primary schools reacted with caution to news that Labour wants to scrap SATs and abolish the new Reception baseline test.  Whilst many agreed with their description of a “regime of extreme pressure testing”, we also wondered if this blanket statement really demonstrated Labour’s understanding of what is wrong with primary testing.

Labour wants a “more flexible and practical” primary assessment system to replace the existing tests, but hasn’t provided any detail on what that system might look like.  So here’s a manifesto for changes to the test that really will make a difference to primary schools:

  1. Get rid of the tests that don’t add value to teaching and learning

Wyse explains how an over-emphasis on grammar hinders a pupil’s ability to take control of their learning style and leaves them unable to explore the process of writing.  A huge body of research shows that teaching grammar as a discrete skill separate to the writing process not only makes no positive difference to writing, but can also demotivate struggling writers.  Teaching grammar through reading and applying it in writing is valuable, but teaching it as a set of discrete and separate testable skills is pointless.  So first, drop the SPAG test.

Phonics is an important skill to support learning to read, and primary teachers recognise its value.  However, primary practitioners know that reading is a more complex process than simply decoding.  We have all seen confident readers fail the phonics screening as they try to ‘make sense’ of the nonsense words.  This is an important reading skill: we want children coming across a word that makes no sense to find a way to give it meaning, that’s what real readers do when phonics doesn’t work.  And in the context of the English language, phonics frequently doesn’t work.  If the nonsense words were removed and it became a low stakes internal test, primary teachers would probably want to continue using it, but as a high stakes predictor of future reading skills, the phonics screening is pointless.

It’s a similar story for the new times tables test.  Primary teachers have been administering their own low stakes times tables tests for years, and have always valued the rote learning of multiplication facts.  But is it important enough to be a statutory test?  Just like phonics, pupils’ ability to memorise times tables facts isn’t a predictor of mathematical achievement. It isn’t even a predictor of pupils’ ability to successfully understand multiplication and use it to solve problems.  Another pointless test.

2. Reduce test-induced pressure on teachers and avoid ‘labelling’ pupils

We know from the vast body of research evidence on feedback, mindsets and motivation that grading or scoring can be damaging to confidence and future learning, both for low and high achievers.  And yet, our testing regime persists in attempting to ‘label’ pupils according to their test outcomes, and in holding teachers to account for these scores.  When a teacher’s job is on the line, and there is a challenging cohort of pupils, it’s difficult not to transfer the pressure you feel onto the pupils in your care. 

There is a marked difference in pupils’ responses to KS1 and KS2 testing.  Teachers know that the KS1 tests only provide a snapshot of pupils’ learning.  Teacher assessments, moderated by test data, provide a much more realistic picture of pupils’ achievement.  I would imagine that if KS2 tests operated in the same way, both pupils and teachers would feel less stress.  And if this synergy between tests and teacher assessments were truly embraced, the number of tests could be significantly reduced and their administration made much less stressful.  Why not just one Reading paper and one Mathematics paper at each Key Stage?   Why not remove the time limit for the papers, allowing teachers to judge when pupils have done as much as is reasonable for their learning level?

Unfortunately, the new Reception baseline test looks set to replicate the problems tests currently create at KS1 and KS2.  Rather than looking to assess children across the broad range of areas of learning and development which we know act as predictors of future academic success, they take a narrow focus on easy-to-measure skills such as numeracy and literacy. This narrowing of focus is something Ofsted have now recognised as historically damaging to the KS1 and KS2 curricula in many schools.  High stakes tests like these don’t function as formative tests, but as ways to label very young pupils and constraints to teaching a broad and balanced curriculum, hence placing stress on teachers, pupils and parents.

If we really trusted teachers as highly trained professionals – and why wouldn’t we? – we would significantly reduce the number of high stakes tests in primary schools, selecting the bare minimum (those that matter) and combining them with teacher judgement to produce a rounded picture of pupil attainment.  Let’s hope Labour understand that.

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