A recent conversation with a friend confirmed that for anyone with a child in years two or six of primary school, SATs are a burning issue. “She came home the other day looking miserable and saying she’d had a really hard day at school,” said my friend of her daughter. “She’d been given a SATs paper to do while other children played on iPads, and she didn’t think it was fair. She said the questions were really difficult.”
Like my friend’s child, my own seven-year-old daughter has just completed SATs and, fortunately, coped well. In common with some primary schools, hers took the view that it was better to prepare children than just spring the tests on them so by May, she had already sat several papers. To avoid putting pressure on the class, the teacher never used the word “SATs” but told children they were simply doing “special work”. Yet, however schools handle them, SATs equal stress.
Ever since their inception in 1991, Standard Assessment Tests (SATs), have been a source of controversy, with teachers criticising them as unfair and unworkable and parents questioning the need for formal assessments at such a young age. They are carried out at the end of years two, six and nine, though the year two SATs are meant to be informal, and year six results are used to measure primary schools’ performances in league tables.
One problem is that, like the education system in general, SATs have undergone several changes subject to the prevailing political wind, leading to disruption to tests and uncertainty among teachers. Next year, the first two tiers are being completely overhauled and the current levels are being replaced by standardised scores. The plan is to give children a “solid grounding” for secondary school by making the tests more rigorous.
In a further effort to drive progress, from September 2016, reception age children will be subject to mandatory baseline tests. With proposals that those who fail to meet the benchmark for phonics in year one could be screened again in years two and three, a child could, in theory, be tested every year for the first four years of primary school.
An obvious question is what on earth can be the point of testing four-year-olds, some of whom can barely write their own name? The idea that between the ages of six and eight, a child can be made to sit a test three times in order for them to pass it seems, frankly, cruel. What harm must it do to self-esteem not only to be told that you’re not good enough, but to have that message repeatedly reinforced?
In fact, the whole premise of SATs – of using children to measure a school’s performance – seems inherently wrong. We already have a means of doing this through Ofsted, and schools should be able to carry out their own tests – properly regulated – based on knowledge of their pupils. Either they’re fit to educate our children or they’re not – and if they are, they should be able do this unhindered.
The evidence abounds that, for many children, SATs are at the very least unwelcome. A snapshot of comments on the parents’ forum Mumsnet highlights the misery faced by many every year as test dates loom, including tears, migraines and insomnia. At its latest conference, the National Association of Head Teachers called for research into the effects of testing on primary aged children. It described the assessments as “excessive” and warned that they would lead to an increase in poor self-esteem, low self-confidence and mental health problems.
It’s clear that teachers don’t like SATs, and that putting them under pressure to meet attainment targets translates to pressure being put on children. In the run-up to the tests, many schools organise extra classes in English and maths, while subjects like art and music are forgotten. As one teacher on Mumsnet puts it: “Teachers know it’s wrong and are 100 per cent against it. But if we don’t achieve the unreasonable expectations the Government want, schools fail.”
The high stakes have led to schools being accused of cheating and in 2001, two headteachers resigned after admitting that they had manipulated results. What is evident is that the notion of “teaching to the test” has undermined the credibility of SATs, with the consequence that most secondary schools re-test in year seven. For children, this means that all the hard work is, effectively, for nothing – except the questionable reward of having helped their school to rank highly. Conversely, if they do badly, they must carry the guilt of having let their teachers down.
Within the United Kingdom, England is alone in insisting on so much formal testing. Far from ramping up the assessments, Wales has scrapped SATs for years six and nine and doesn’t have league tables, while Scotland has a flexible approach, leaving teachers to decide when children are ready for tests.
Perhaps the saddest indictment of the harm inflicted by SATs is a letter sent by some schools to its pupils as an antidote. Taken from an original text by the American education blogger Kimberly Hurd Horst, it includes the line: “The SATs test does not assess all of what makes each of you special and unique.”
Of course SATs don’t. They don’t value skills or talents beyond the narrow strictures of what the Government deems important and nor do they reflect that there is so much more to being successful than achieving levels and grades – like hard work, perseverance and a strong work ethic.
What they do is stifle a love of learning by turning schools into sausage factories and reducing education to a series of hoops to be jumped through. Excessive testing at a young age only undermines children’s confidence by inciting the fear of failure, when what we should be doing, if we really want them to do well, is the opposite.