Time to challenge the testing culture

Submitted by martin on 2 February, 2003 - 11:25

The NUT National Executive has agreed to canvass its members for a boycott of some SAT tests. Teachers must now renew their campaigning against the testing culture. Pat Yarker looks at the background to the years of testing and targets in state schools.

"I do remember the teacher coming in and saying 'We're going to be doing a little test today' and we were sat down and it was really really quiet". That is the abiding memory of the first Key Stage 2 test from a student who was part of that cohort upon whom all the testing and target-setting regimes from 1988 until now have been imposed: SATs at Key Stages 1, 2 and 3, remodelled GCSEs, the faulty AS exams and the yet-to-be-taken A2s.

She and her classmates knew they were guinea-pigs from the outset. They had no influence over the style or content of the different exam regimes imposed upon them. They knew the tests would affect their future groupings in school and how they would be perceived. What counted for them, and what still counts, is their performance in the public exams.

Evidence continues to mount up that students are affected by the process of SATs in a range of detrimental ways. Primary teachers and the parents or carers of primary-aged children report that students' motivation, their stress-levels, their sleeping-patterns, and even their eating habits deteriorate. The relentless public testing regime is taking its toll on students at school and at home, one reason why parents and carers are likely to back a boycott, led by the National Union of Teachers (NUT) of end-of-key-stage testing.

SATs are a legacy of Thatcherism. The key-stone of educational Thatcherism in the classroom remains the centrally-determined National Curriculum which privileges a version of the dominant ideology inscribed within a body of knowledge and a set of skills over what the student herself might already know, understand or be able to do, generating as a default a deficit-model of every student. SATs and League Tables are the supporting pillars of the Thatcherite educational edifice, and the 1988 Education Reform Act (ERA) was its blueprint.

Education Secretary Kenneth Baker sold his national curriculum reform to his hard-right critics precisely on the grounds that a national curriculum would serve as an ideal justification for a massive programme of national testing of children at the ages of seven, 11, 14 and 16. This in turn would provide raw data for compiling national League Tables of schools, whose publication would furnish (he alleged) valuable evidence for parents and carers as to the desirability or otherwise of individual schools, with a consequent effect on schools' performance.

The end-of-Key-Stage tests, the SATs, were introduced in the teeth of non-compliance by some groups of teachers. Resistance in schools led to a boycott by the NUT which was subsequently abandoned, although individual teachers and some departments continued with various kinds of anti-SATs activity. However, such action could make no headway and was no substitute for organised, widespread and concerted action by unions.

In 1993 the second-biggest teachers' union, the NASUWT moved for action on the limited (and ultimately losing) grounds of workload alone. The NUT moved likewise, but intelligently and consistently did so on grounds of workload and of educational unsustainability. Activism on the ground and principled refusal to accept the new dispensation brought in by the ERA seemed to be reaping some reward. However the union accepted the alterations made by the Dearing Review, instead of pushing through a boycott of the system at a time when even the National Association of Head Teachers had come out against SATs and League Tables. Dearing's review tinkered, but left SATs in place and retained League Tables for 11 year olds.

The new Education Secretary Gillian Shephard said the revised National Curriculum, tests, tables and all "would continue the drive to raise standards." Performance tables were going to "shine a bright light into every classroom in the land." The mantra was taken up by the Blairites, for whom SATs operate in several politically-convenient ways.

The concept of 'testing' is, in the mouths of Education ministers, slippery and ambiguous. It can mean (sympathetically) diagnosing - testing for a weakness which can then be remedied. But 'testing' also carries with it harsher meanings: of a trial of knowledge and of a yardstick against which to measure students. It is these latter meanings which have come to dominate the reality of SATs and to prompt teachers to go to great lengths to minimise for (or even conceal from) students what's actually going on in SATs.

Some teachers cheat outright. Allegations of malpractice in the handling of SATs in schools have risen by 50% and more recently (although very few actual results end up changed.) What kind of education system has been constructed around us which makes some of our colleagues feel they have no other recourse but this?

Because SATs grade every child, because the Government has decreed certain scores to be the 'average' or the 'expected' score for a given age-group and further decreed certain numbers of students must achieve at certain levels, and because these scores are turned to the rank-ordering of schools in League Tables, teachers now inhabit a system driven by SATs. Work to prepare students for SATs marginalises or excludes other activities vital for a full and balanced educational experience such as drama, art, various technologies, music or sport.

Since the abandonment of the original boycott, teachers have unsurprisingly tried to make the best of it, but the SATs regime, the testing culture and the values it imports into state education have always been resisted in different ways. SATs marks are frequently challenged by teachers and departments. The right of parents or carers to withdraw their children from SATs is reiterated. However, as teachers have tried to make the system work the political rewards have accrued for the government. Results have risen and appear to provide a simple and authoritative way of 'proving' the success of policy in education.

Recent evidence in the Times Educational Supplement suggests that the tide is beginning to turn. More parents believe standards have got worse in secondary schools since Labour came to power than think they have got better. The survey of fifteen hundred parents also indicated most parents are satisfied with their child's school, and credit teachers. Government failure to solve the teacher recruitment and retention crisis, restore accommodation to acceptable levels or address the reasons for disaffection and the rising numbers of exclusions among growing numbers of students have all begun to offset the political advantage gained from insisting that higher SAT scores means that school standards generally are rising.

Activists in the NUT are working to pressure the union into setting a definite date for the union's canvas of its members over boycott, and for outlining action beyond it. Some are calling for all SATs (including those at KS3) to be boycotted, along with Foundation Stage Profiling. The arguments against SATs hold true at each Key Stage and none should be exempt from teacher-action.

A boycott of SATs also raises at once the issue of League Tables and opens the possibility of bringing England into line with Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Only in England are there League Tables for 11, 14 and 16 year olds, and Key Stage tests for all students. London branches of the NUT held a meeting in December to begin to organise a wider campaign. NUT members continue to collect signatures on the union's anti-SATs 'Not Good For Children' petition.

Parents/carers, school-governors and teachers in other unions can be won to support the union's boycott.

NUT members should lobby their representatives for a ballot-date, hold meetings with colleagues, parents/carers and governors to explain the need for action, leaflet and petition using NUT material (available on the union's website) and support the anti-SATs motions being put to union conference.

Back the boycott! Scrap the SATs!

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