SATs, Actually.

Hello everyone!  As I sit here writing these words, struggling to decide between Coffee Shop Jazz or Atomic Kitten, I realise that I might just be succumbing to  Lockdown Fatigue.  That wonderful feeling where every decision, no matter how arbitrary, feels gargantuan.  It's exhausting.  And I'm a grown-up!  I can only imagine how it must be for children who

a) have way more energy they can't use, and 

b) experience time at a far more slowed-down pace than I (for a deeper look into this subject, check this out!).  

And it's children that I want to speak about today.  Specifically, the children who are having to cope with distance-learning or a mix of live- and distance-learning.  Some of these children are in school (which, contrary to popular belief are not closed.  Many are still open for Key Worker children and also to deliver that mix of live- and distanced-learning.  Teachers are not on holiday.  Children are not on holiday); some are at home.  All are having to learn in a way that is very unusual for them.

But it's not even that that I'm writing about today.  Children are adaptable and many of them are used to learning through a screen anyway (not a dig at anyone, just a fact).  No, what I'm writing about today is the assessment of those children or rather, the dangers behind the absence of that assessment. Yes, and I almost can't believe it myself, I am writing in defence of the SATs!?

The standardised Statutory Assessment Tests, or SATs, for those of you who don't know, are assessments taken by children in schools in England (not Wales or Scotland) in their final year of Primary education.  They are summative tests and have been criticised by many people (including this humble blogger) for being snapshot judgements, assigning a child's educational worth to a series of normalised grades.  Since their re-vamp in 2014, things are arguable even worse, since children are now considered Secondary Ready or not based on these results.  Yup, at the end of just six years of formal education, children in England are rewarded with a binary pass/fail outcome.  But, they get to move on to Secondary school either way.  

It seems broken when you put it like that, doesn't it?  And, like I say, I have written articles about how broken a system it is (one published by the Times Education Supplement).  My MA dissertation was based on how broken a system is it.  But... I think I may have misunderstood a few things.

While there are a lot of things wrong with the SATs, they are a standardised set of questions.  this means that all children are judged against the same criteria.  That criteria, by the way, is only based on the National Curriculum, which is a statutory, legal set of instructions that schools in England have to follow.  So, theoretically at least, the children are not being asked anything they wouldn't know.

Now, whether the schools have been able to deliver the curriculum effectively is up for debate.  And there are far too many variables behind this to go into now.  I'm not calling anyone out; I'm not blaming and/or shaming schools.  Everyone is doing their best in what is a rather uneven playing field.  However, this is exactly why the SATs are a good thing.  

I used to complain about the SATs grade boundaries not being published, or even decided, until after all the children had taken the tests.  As a teacher, I thought that the very least we could be given was a rough idea of where to aim for a pass mark.  Well, I'm older and wiser now (and I've done the research) and I know that the pass marks and threshold scores are normalised.  Basically, every paper is taken into consideration and a team of people decide, based on that year's cohort where the pass mark should realistically be.

And this makes a lot of sense when you think about it.  No-one knows how difficult children are going to find the papers.  No-one can 100% predict what construct irrelevant variance will occur.  For instance, a few years ago, in the Grammar and Punctuation tests, there was a question that on the surface was quite complicated.  Indeed, the commentary that was later published identified it as a higher-level question.  So when one of my lower-ability children answered it quickly and easily, I was a little shocked (and impressed).  That was until she told me that they knew the answer because it was a word sung in Frozen.

So what?  Children can learn from anything, Carl.  Don't be that guy!

I'm not, I promise.  My point is that, when the questions were written two years previously (that's how long it takes to write and test the papers), no-one could have known that watching Disney films would render a difficult question easy.  When normalisation of results occurs, these anomalies are accounted for and grade boundaries are adjusted not to be cruel but to be valid.  Or at least, more valid.  There is still the issue that the SATs can only assess around 17% of the entire curriculum but that's a rant for another day.

So, hang on, the SATs are what, now?  Good?  Bad?  You're rambling, Carl.  Get to the point!

So much has happened over the last half of the previous academic year and the first half of this academic year that it is nigh-on impossible to work out where children are with regard to their education.  Even on a class-by-class basis, it's too hard.  Assessment is hard enough when all the children are in the same room.  You have to arrange the tests, make sure that the tests are testing what's been covered, set aside time for the tests to be sat, allow time for the tests to be marked and the results analysed.  Then you have to interrogate those results and decide where the gaps are, why the gaps exist, who needs more intervention, who needs less, who needs more challenge... Honestly, unless you've worked in a school, I don't think you can properly understand the hell that is assessment week.  And the fact that it happens at the end of a half-term just means that you are encouraged to use your one-week break to do all of this.

But it is essential.  Without accurate, frequent assessment, we can't know where the children are.  We can't know where to take them.  We can't plan and structure worthwhile lessons.  Even more formal summative assessment can be used to evaluate and inform future practise.  

And we're not going to have that this year.

Yes, schools are going to submit results based on teacher assessment and that's... something, I guess.  At least.  But how can those assessments be valid, or even all that accurate when you haven't seen the children physically for months, even terms?  There is no way of knowing how much support they've been given; how much help they've been denied.  To be clear, this is nobody's fault.  This is just a fact of COVID living.  But it's a bit of a mess.

You remember earlier I said that children are deemed either ready or not ready for Secondary school based on SATs results?  Well, that only works because they are nationally standardised tests.  Everyone has answered the same questions; been given the same amount of time under the same circumstances.  I'm not here to say whether or not it is fair but you can't deny that it is valid and, for the most part, reliable (although the reliability of the SATs is a whole different blog post).  

If we abandon national testing for teacher judgement, which, by the way, is far more flawed a system (Cooper, 2003; Campbell, 2015; Rausch, 2016), there is no way at all to know just how flawed the recent learning has been.  Again, I'm not blaming anyoneBut it is true that teaching and learning have suffered recently.  It's going to take years to get back on track.  A nationally standardised test will, at least, give us an insight into where to focus our efforts during the rebuilding.  

Here's my hot-take - it won't be popular.  Keep the tests.  Have children sit them at home if necessary (supervised over Zoom or Teams or Meet, whatever).  Use the tests that were already lined up for this year.  DON'T publish the results.  Don't even return individual results.  Provide a dashboard-style report for Primary and Secondary schools, and Parents.  A simply, the average results for this year's cohort are as follows... and highlight areas of strength and weakness.  

It won't be useful for individual children but that's where the teacher judgement comes in, on a much more pastoral level, which I think is better anyway.  Let the teacher provide a school report that is more focussed on the child - they have to write reports anyway.  Let the national tests provide a current overview of the state of education overall.

So that's my opinion.  Given the uncertainty of the world at the moment, I think it is utter lunacy to scrap national testing.  Like I said, this won't be a popular opinion and I would love to hear from you if you disagree.

Until next time, work from home if you can, be kind to each other and, most of all, stay safe.

Carl Headley-Morris

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Articles cited in this post:

Rausch, T., Karing, C., Dörfler, T., & Artelt, C. (2016). Personality similarity between teachers and their students influences teacher judgement of student achievement. Educational Psychology Review, 36(5), 863–878.

Campbell, T. (2015). Stereotyped at seven? Biases in teacher judgement of pupils’ ability and attainment. Journal of Social Policy, 44(3), 517–547.

Cooper, C. W. (2003). The Detrimental Impact of Teacher Bias: Lessons Learned from the Standpoint of African American Mothers. Teacher Education Quarterly, 30(2), 101–116.