Results of the latest Sats tests, taken by children at the end of primary school, show that attainment has risen. A rise understood to mean improving primary schools and better educated kids. But what if this increase in results actually proves the reverse? What if higher test performance has entailed less not more learning?
The commonly accepted purpose of the English and maths Sats tests, taken by Year 6 pupils and marked externally, is to show whether children have reached the literacy and numeracy levels needed to succeed in secondary school. The results, therefore, are taken as measures of both pupil and primary school competence. Yet in practice the Sats give us a satisfactory picture of neither. The results are frequently misleading, often demonstrating test rather than secondary school readiness.
Ultimately the problem stems from so-called teaching to the test, in which the snapshot tested becomes the focus of learning. Artificially inflated Sats performance is common enough to seriously trouble 'recipient' secondary schools. In a Civitas survey of Year 7 teachers 79 percent thought that up to a third of their primary school intake had attained Sats scores higher than their true abilities. Wider educational concerns aside, secondaries complained that this leads to the impression that pupils are stalling or even going backwards upon arrival.
So the bad news in the reporting of this year's Sats results - the number of children still not reaching the expected standard - is actually likely to be worse. But, it is the good news that may be worse still. This year's higher results will at least in some instances have involved truncated learning. It is perverse but not uncommon to hear teachers saying for example 'Fred really needs to focus more on x, but I've got to get him through the Sats.' Or even more depressingly, Fred may barely get a look in at all. Sats performance pressure can force teachers to direct teaching at those children more likely to reach the benchmark with a 'tightly targeted' approach. Lower level pupils - hopeless in target terms - and higher level pupils - already in the bag - can end up in the shadows. This scenario may go some way to explaining the declining number of pupils achieving levels beyond the standard benchmark.
Yet as commonly exposed as the fundamental flaws in the Sats may be, the government is keeping them. Amendments are being made in an attempt to address weaknesses, but the reality is that the Sats are beyond repair. Quite simply, they need to go. Arguably the reason that these discredited tests are not being scrapped is because doing so is seen to be synonymous with getting rid of testing. Yet it is a rotten regime, not testing per se which is the problem. Used as one indicator of pupil understanding and teaching quality amongst a range of others, testing can be an invaluable tool. Varying the assessed snapshot and keeping it truly unseen would prevent rather that promote test prep and produce genuinely useful results.
The bottom line is that if primary school tests are being prepared for, neither test nor teacher is doing their job properly. The preparation for primary school tests should be primary school itself.