Thursday, 17 July 2008

Weighing pigs

Regarding the total titsup that's happening this year about the school SATs - the thing that's upsetting me is not the complete hash that has been made of the marking, it's that the children concerned are being made to think that it matters to them. It absolutely doesn't. It's the league tables that it affects; the ranking of the school, for those who think that sort of thing matters (some parents, Ofsted, headteachers etc). It should not matter one brass farthing to the children themselves.

When SATs came to these shores, they were portrayed as being a measuring tool. The idea was that they would show the level each child was at by asking them questions at a rate that gradually became more difficult, but helped to show what they could do. It was said that most exams tested what a child didn't know, but SATs showed what (s)he did. But before long, they became more and more important, and this anxiety of the schools (and the parents) was transmitted to the child. Now, in the spring, primary schools coach to pass the SATs, not to further the education of the child. This is absolutely not what was intended at the start.

My younger son was in the guinea pig year, those born in 1983/84. They were the first to take the Key Stage 1 tests and the Key Stage 3 tests. They were also the first to take the AS levels in the lower sixth form, followed by A2s in the upper 6th. This means he was tested in year 2, year 6, year 9, year 11, year 12 and year 13. Official government tests, that is, national ones, not the usual end of term or year exams that we were used to. And all children are subjected to that now - though now, of course, the poor little creatures get Baseline Assessment (if that's what it's still called, I've been out of primary education for a couple of years) within the first few weeks of term, so that the Contextual Value Added scores can be taken into account at every stage. I'm not against testing, exams, and certainly not against rigour and high expectations, but the reliance on strictly regimented data at the top level is working against good education, not in favour of it, and is causing increasing anxiety for teachers and pupils.

In my naivety, I wasn't agin SATs when they started. I thought they would be useful. It was worrying, how many seven-year-olds couldn't read or write (not in our village school) and I thought it would help to target where improvement was most needed so that appropriate help could be given. But all that has happened is that children's lives have been made a misery. Never have they suffered such stress. It's a tribute to their resilience that, in spite of this, and the breakdown of family life and the pressure and anxiety of life, particularly in the cities, so many children still cope as well as they do.

And in the most recent instructions for Ofsted inspectors, it's the statistics that matter above all else. Look at the CVA scores, the SATs, the KS4 results, the RAISEonline data, the PANDA scores - oh no, scrub that last, that's been superseded. If we don't have a new acronym every couple of years, what are the mouse-pushers at the DfES to do with their time?


peaceableimperatrix said...

Ah, testing. Here in the US, we have an SAT, but it is a test taken during 11th and early 12th grade that is used by universities (east of the Mississippi; west of it, they use a different test called the ACT) to rank applicants. We had our own fiasco last year when a large batch of SATs was misgraded (they are bubble tests, and supposedly the humidity in the air made the machines mis-read the pages). Many kids were not awarded scholarships, or worse, places, in the universities of their choice. The College Board (the co. that administers the SAT) just said "sorry", but all those kids were still stuck.

Thanks to Geo. Bush, our elementary kids are bombarded with testing (the "No Child Left Behind" family of laws). This just means that kids are no longer taught subjects, they are trained to the test. Electives like music, art, history, civics, and so on, as well as morning recess and reasonable lunch breaks, are more and more often cut out of the curriculum to make room for reading and math practice.

Kids whose parents are involved and supportive of education aren't in too much trouble yet, because we fill the gaps at home by offering our kids books to read (historical fiction, for example, so they have some sense of what has come before), programs to watch, enforced TV/computer limits, etc.

But the kids whose family life isn't conducive to learning and betterment are stuck.

Not a cheery future for any of us, I'm afraid.

Z said...

Blimey, it's like Hanging Chads, isn't it?

When Ro took his A levels there was a big fuss because marking went wrong - Ro had his physics A level upgraded. Fortunately, he was accepted by the university of his choice, although he was a grade down because of the dud marking. That was 6 years ago, it isn't all a new thing.

Trained to the test, indeed they are. Actually, the other day I was interviewing a woman who has (not what I was interviewing her for) been teaching home-schooled children in one specialised subject for several years. It sounds as if there are a lot of them about, and you can see why.

How do we know said...

Hear Hear!!! Go Z!! You deserve to be heard everywhere. And every parent should memorise this post!

Eddie 2-Sox said...

CYSM is a teacher (deputy head) and is equally fed up with the SATs this year.

I was surprised when I read this blog, because you mentioned that it shouldn't affect the children - I had the same thought a few days ago and decided I must be wrong as interviews with youngsters saying it was "not fair on us" were all over the radio.

But I guess it's the radio people prompting for soundbites, not the childrens' genuine opinions that were aired.

p.s. Are you still allowed to "snog" at your stage of life? Age Concern have re-assessed their definition of an Older Person DOWN to 55....

Gordie said...

Dear Z, you have confirmed two things I have suspected for a while: first that SATs are meant to be a test of the school, not the child, and second, that the staff transmit their anxiety to the children.

I know that all Whitehall departments are obsessed with inventing new metrics, (because sometimes I'm a consultant to them), but they never make them easy to administer. DfES, or DCSF, are such a shambles they make DEFRA look like a ladies' synchronised swimming team.

“Never try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and it annoys the pig.” Robert Heinlein

Z said...

Elder and better, Simon. The over-55s (which I'm not) show how it should be done. Not in front of our children, however, whom we don't want to scar mentally.

Blue Witch said...

"the thing that's upsetting me is not the complete hash that has been made of the marking, it's that the children concerned are being made to think that it matters to them"

Maybe it doesn't in the schools you're involved with Z, but it really *does* in most schools.

Y7s are often put into ability sets on the basis of SATs, entries to GCSEs are made on the basis of KS3 results, and teachers and parents judge a particular child against others (nationally and in the same school) on the basis of test results.

I'm currently working with a Y2 child whose teacher told her mum that she'd have achieved Level 4s in the KS1 SATs if they were awarded (for those who don't know, Level 2 is the average, and the maximum that is awarded at 7 years of age is Level 3; Level 4 is the average expected of an 11 year old). The parents now want their child to be put straight into Y5, missing Y3 and Y4 on the basis of this!!!

SATs are the worst thing that ever happened to education in the UK. Many schools in affluent areas cram the curriculum into Year 1 to 5, so they can spend the whole of Year 6 preparing kids ("revising") for a week of governmint testing in May.

Z said...

Then that's the fault of the schools, to put all their faith into artificial testing rather than in knowing the individual pupils and their potential. Suffolk (where our village school feeds to and where the high school is) is one of the few counties still to have middle schools (for the next few years), and so the children move schools in the middle of key stages, so they can't use SATs to decide where to put them at the next school.

The middle school does do tests to indicate which sets children should start in at the high school, but there is some adjustment later as it's in everyone's interests if the pupils are in classes appropriate to them. Similarly, pupils are given opportunities to move into a higher GCSE set if they are capable of it - the SATS are used, but they aren't the only thing taken into account. Ro had been in the 2nd maths set and was offered extra catch-up classes to give him a chance to move up, which he took (his choice, the school consulted him, not us) and did. You can't blame schools for getting fixated on exam results as so much is read into them - my school refused to chase extra points at the expense of the most appropriate curriculum and now that the government has at last realised that the Maths and English results are the ones that matter most, this is likely to pay off for us - but this is not an academically competitive area, on the whole, and most affluent people send their children to private schools anyway.

Blue Witch said...

Talking of private schools - many parents opt for state primary and indpendent secondary.

But, the heads round here (actually, the whole of the county, and borderig ones too from what I gather) got together and are now refusing to accept kids into their Y7s unless they have at least L4s. Unless they bave an IQ of at least 100, proven withit he previous 12 months (!!!!!).

Which could have been a lovely earner for me. However, I have high ethical standards and I've refused to play the game and have instead written a bullet-point summary paper on 'the dangers of IQ and SATs results as a predictor of future academic success' and slipped it to my favourite heads.

Kids annual targets are set in terms of x and y and move from level 3b to 4a too.

Whatever your schools may be doing in your rural backwater really isn't what's happening in other areas. Too many highly competitive people in schools who want jobs in HMI and DCFS.

Z said...

Are all schools oversubscribed then? And do catchment areas not exist in your county? - which is next to my school's, by the way, and we are not allowed to turn away children if there is a place for them. We are obliged, if there is a place, to take a pupil who has been excluded from another school.

Rural backwater, it's true, but it seems to me that our local schools demonstrate some of the better practice in comprehensive education. We've got good vocational opportunities, including links with a local college and businesses, but also decent levels of attainment, with children getting to Oxbridge, medical school and similar levels of further education most years too. Yagnub has been described as a large council estate with a nice little market town attached, and we're never going to top league tables, but we do our best.

This isn't my point though, actually, BW and, as so often, you and I agree. I'll repeat - reliance on strictly regimented data at the top level is working against good education, not in favour of it, and is causing increasing anxiety for teachers and pupils. And if a school is making matters worse by using that data inappropriately, then it's not well led or governed and is not serving its pupils well, whatever the exam results. There have never been so many stressed and miserable children in this country and we're doing it to them.

Blue Witch said...

Sorry I wasn't clear - my 2nd para referred to my first - ie *independent* school heads are refusing to admit Y7s unless they have L4s or 100+ IQ.

Yes of course we agree on the broad aims etc of education. The point I was making (albeit clearly badly) was that SATs results do/have come matter, very much, to individual children.

Governors are largely seen as inconveniences in most schools. Very few are as well informed as you, and very few put in scheduled time in school beyond formal meetings.

Despite the county I live in having, I'm told, the largest programme of governor training in the country, they are all too often either parents with axes of their own to grind, or senior corporate managers who believe that metrics are the only way to go (and are only doing governors jobs to improve their CVs/standing in the community).

Cynical, moi? I prefer to think of it as realistic. Things, IMHO, have never been worse in my experience of the educational system (1960s on).

Z said...

Ooh, BW, I really feel an awfully snobbish rant coming on (not directed at you, natch, darling!). I'm not sure if I'm going to finish and post it, but my reply was going on and on and getting a bit impassioned!

As for your final para, I agree with you in relation to the ever-increasing government interference and reliance on measurable data, but in my experience (and I am appreciating our schools more and more, in light of what you say) there is still some damn good child-centred (in the best way) education going on here, and some incredibly dedicated and effective teachers and teaching assistants.