In the aftermath of the publication of Key Stage 2 assessment results on Tuesday, much of the criticism by unions and other teaching organisations has, quite reasonably, been that the government’s new tests are too hard, that they are setting children up to fail and that the content is not relevant to children’s lives. While valid, all of these criticisms are merely components of a much broader concern: that the all-important performance data the test results create no longer tells us anything useful. Educational policy, Ofsted judgements and funding decisions will no doubt continue to be made on the basis of this data and yet, for the five reasons outlined below, that data is not worth the paper it’s written on.
1. The reading test doesn’t assess the National Curriculum. Or reading. Or anything.
The level of vocabulary required to access the reading test (example: “rehabilitating the image of the dodo”) was what one would previously have expected from a university-educated adult. Without such a level of vocabulary (precious little of which was included in the DfE’s assessment framework or the 2014 National Curriculum) children were unable to answer most of the questions. The logic of using test results to hold schools to account for the extent to which they have done what they have been asked to do is flawed at best, but when they are holding schools to account for something they haven’t been asked to do, the process is completely absurd. Children whose parents do not speak English or do not routinely use a broad vocabulary will not typically be able to access this test however good their schooling has been. These children may be well on their way to being well-educated adults who will have a vocabulary that broad when they leave secondary school, but to penalise them and their teachers for the fact that this process is incomplete at the age of eleven is ludicrous. It assesses nothing but the demographic make-up of a particular school.
2. Writing assessment is in chaos.
The entire process through which children’s writing is assessed has been reduced to a (very easily-manipulated) system of box-ticking. A child is given a score based on how many times they have used particular grammatical devices and punctuation marks without any consideration of whether the writing actually conveys meaning with clarity or engages the reader. The national data suggests schools have been able to meet these requirements but they have only managed this by modelling and redrafting writing in children’s books in such a way that the child’s input into the process is barely required at all. It is almost insulting to suggest that a school which has produced copious evidence of its compliance with this nonsense has served its children better than one which has spent its time actually teaching them to write.
3. The political manipulation of the results is painfully obvious.
If the government had maintained the imperfect but generally age-appropriate assessment mechanisms for 11-year-olds bequeathed to them by the last Labour government, I suspect results would have continued to rise over the last six years as schools have continued to improve despite, rather than because of the government’s reforms. As budgets are slashed over the next couple of years and the exodus of teachers from the profession picks up, one assumes the steady rise in standards we’ve seen over the last nineteen years is about to go into reverse.
Against that background, the Year 1 phonics check provides us with a clue as to what the government is really up to. This new test was introduced by Michael Gove to test the extent to which children in Year 1 could “sound out” phonetically regular words and “non-words.” Each year the test has, by fairly common agreement among teachers, got slightly easier but the pass mark has remained unchanged at 32/40. Already Nicky Morgan is using this as evidence that the government’s education reforms have improved early reading. Clearly, this process is now also at play in Key Stage 2. The inaccessible vocabulary in the reading test will no doubt start to retreat over the next couple of years allowing more children to reach the expected standard every May. Graphs will be produced on the basis of this as the Tories head into the next general election showing how attainment in primary schools has risen year on year during this parliament, even if the quality of children’s education is actually dropping.
4. The practices encouraged by these tests are not good for our children and a strong performance in them may indicate poor educational provision.
Many schools in the state sector have the power to turn down certain pupils. Academies can claim that they are “unable to meet the needs” of particular pupils while faith schools can insist on only admitting children whose families subscribe to their “religious ethos.” The many cases in which this is simply used as a scam by school and families unlike to ensure an almost entirely sharp-elbowed middle class intake are well-documented. In a climate where these new Key Stage 2 tests are the benchmark of success, the incentive for these schools to ramp up their deployment of these tricks is enormous. Judging a school on how middle-class its Year 6 pupils’ parents are is a recipe for division in our already precariously unequal society.
Whatever pupils end up in a school, the way in which we are judged now means our perceived success has nothing to do with the extent to which we encourage children to enjoy learning, to develop skills that will help them get a job when they are older or even remember how to read, write and do maths after the tests have finished. We are being forced to hot-house children so that, for four days in May when they are eleven years old, their heads are full of formal written calculation methods and SPaG terminology like “relative pronoun” and “past progressive tense.” It doesn’t matter if they remember it after that and it doesn’t matter if they know anything else (like where the UK is on a map of the world or how to reach a compromise with another human being). This sort of cramming was already, in my view, a questionable way to organise the structure of secondary education (I knew all sorts of things about Physics in June 1999 that I have never known before or since) but in primary school I think it is seriously damaging.
5. The testing regime rewards the cheats and punishes integrity.
We live in an era where primary schools and the careers of their head teachers stand or fall on the basis of their Key Stage 2 results. The way they are used as a starting point for Ofsted inspections means that what happens during the four days the tests are administered matters more to a primary school’s perceived “success” than the other 187 days of the school year put together. At my school, we administered all the tests completely in accordance with the rules set out in the DfE’s Test Administrator’s Guide but we only did this because our professional integrity matters to us, not because there is any serious mechanism compelling us to do so. The procedures for ensuring compliance with the rules are virtually non-existent. Apart from brief monitoring visits by local authority staff (whose own objectivity could surely be questioned given their precarious position in relation to the academisation agenda) for a handful of schools on one of the days the tests are taking place, there is nothing to stop unscrupulous staff from providing their children with an unfair advantage. This could range from breaking the rules slightly by implying a child think again about a question they have got wrong to outright cheating by correcting or supplying an answer.
I’ve heard a number of stories of schools where this sort of skulduggery is considered a fact of life. When the mark schemes were made available on the DfE website last year, I was at an event with teachers from an academy in North London and I heard one say to another, referring to one of the answers: “oh good. That’s what I told the kids.” Just this week, a colleague of mine asked a teacher from another school how they had got such astronomically high maths results and was told: “we just make sure they get every mark in the arithmetic test.” When confronted with such ominous statements, one is often inclined not to dig too deep and of course both of these instances could turn out to be perfectly innocent if we knew exactly what they had meant. Yet in an age where schools are increasingly being run by multi-academy trusts with their own agendas that rely only on results, it is easy to see how corruption could start to take root and ultimately become routine. Those of us who play by the rules are starting to feel like utter mugs in this brave new world.