On October 14 Education Secretary Ed Balls scrapped National Curriculum (NC) testing at Key Stage 3 and the League Tables it gives rise to. But only a few weeks earlier Jim Knight, the Schools Secretary, had asserted in the media that KS3 testing was here to stay.
Standard stuff from both Tory and Labour Education Secretaries, who have continually claimed that testing gives reliable and objective information about student progress and the performance of schools, and is vital for the maintenance of rising standards. What’s caused the u-turn?
In May the Commons Children, Schools and Families Committee produced a devastating report on England’s testing regime. Evidence gathered from a multitude of witnesses re-confirmed what teachers, students, parents and academic researchers had long known about the detrimental effect of SATs. The Committee acknowledged that by judging schools on the basis of their students’ test results the government ensures teaching-to-the-test, sacrificing entitlement to a broad and balanced education on the altar of increased SATs scores.
With the Committee’s report requiring a policy-response, Balls faced this summer’s implosion of the test-marking system. ETS failed so utterly to meet its marking-commitments that even now some schools have not received all students’ results from this year’s tests. Hundreds of scripts remain unaccounted for. The number of appeals by schools against marks awarded is likely to double from the 50,000 lodged last year.
Terminating the contract with ETS required a new tendering process to ensure test-marking could be serviceably in place for 2009. But time is short. By abolishing KS3 testing, Balls has made it more likely that the deadline will be met, and saved a recession-hit Treasury perhaps £100 million.
Balls has appointed a committee to review the issue of teaching-to-the-test at Primary level, setting the stage for possible conflict with the extensive Primary Review currently being undertaken independently. It is not clear what the government intend to replace KS3 SATs with, though Balls is likely to require some mechanism to “validate” Teacher Assessment. Teaching-unions and subject-associations should bring forward proposals about the way forward for assessment.
His announcement to Parliament implies Balls would have preferred to keep some form of KS3 testing. He looked to the “single-level test-when-ready” system now being piloted. Results appear to show such a system is not viable for KS3 at least.
The u-turn may work politically. Balls presents himself as amenable to persuasion in relation to some aspects of testing, and this may bolster illusions in the benefits of social partnership among those unions engaged in it. Targets the government set for achievement at KS3 back in 2000 have never been met. Now they can conveniently be forgotten, and the Opposition denied a handy stick with which to beat the government. Possible criticism from the Sutherland inquiries is pre-empted.
The move may also dilute teacher opposition to the retention of testing for 7 and 11 year olds. While collecting signatures recently on the anti-SATs Alliance petition to scrap all SATs, I was approached by a teacher who said that the government had already abolished SATs so the petition was pointless. She was, of course, a Secondary teacher.
But the abolition lifts a demoralising burden from teachers and students at secondary level and could free space for more creative and engaging teaching. Of course it has been carried out by a government still in control of the education-agenda. Teachers, students and parents remain objects of policy not partners in making it, far less makers of it in a democratically-responsive system.
The arguments against KS3 testing apply equally to testing at KS2 and KS1. By dint of their daily contact with students, teachers are best placed to assess in informed depth what their students know, understand and can do. The tram-line model of education still holds sway in government. A child is expected to progress up the slope of NC levels on a trajectory made predictable by test-scores. Teachers must keep the child on-track. It is the trajectory towards the terminal test or exam score, and not the child, which comes to matter most.
To widen the breach in Fortress SATs we must continue countering such ideas about students, learning and teaching, and the practices they help establish. Those ideas are used to justify retaining testing at KS1 and KS2 and the continued use by Secondary schools of batteries of in-house neo-IQ tests such as CATS, and the embedding of setting by so-called “ability”. They foster the reification of young people as walking NC levels, and discourage seeing young people as already expert makers of meaning whose inborn disposition to encounter the world and make sense of it can be the basis and motor for formal education.
All SATs must go, and a system of assessment which benefits the education of the child replace the malignity of NC testing and target-setting.