Against “exam factories”!

Submitted by AWL on 5 June, 2019 - 9:02 Author: Duncan Morrison (assistant NEU secretary, Lewisham, in personal capacity)
exam factories

The National Education Union (NEU) is balloting its primary school members between 4 June and 12 July over whether to boycott high stakes summative testing (HSST) in primary schools.

What is HSST?

“Summative” means that the main purpose is to attach a score to what has been learnt, not to inform future learning and teaching. “High stakes” means that the school and school workers are measured by that score. The tests are used to compile league tables of schools, and those in turn play in to the marketisation of education. Testing is also big business: companies make a lot of money selling tests, data monitoring programmes and revision guides to schools, school workers, parents and children.

It’s just SATs?

No. In English primary schools there are now four sets of HSST tests that the government insists all publicly-funded schools do. These are called statutory tests: phonics screening in Year 1 (age 5 to 6); Standard Attainment Tests (SATs) in Year 2 (age 6 to 7); times table test in Year 4 (age 8 to 9), which will begin next year; and SATs in Year 6 (age 10 to 11). In September, the government will begin a pilot of “Baseline Testing” for reception children (age 4 to 5). It intends to implement that fully from September 2020.

And there’s more?

Yes. On top of the statutory tests, many primary schools now feel compelled to run additional HSST to provide evidence for Ofsted and the government of how the school is doing. Maybe as many as six tests (arithmetic, two maths reasoning, punctuation and grammar, spelling, reading) every half-term. These are often “bought in” at significant cost.

Such tests generally start in Reception and run throughout the school. They are equivalent to a whole half-term (six weeks) of testing each academic year.

But the tests help a bit?

These tests have no positive impact on children’s learning. There is never any feedback provided to the child. In a survey by the NEU in 2018, 88% of teachers said that SATs do not benefit children’s learning, 66% thought that children who had English as Another Language (EAL) were disadvantaged, and 54% thought that summer-born children (the youngest in the class) were disadvantaged.

Or at least they do no harm?

The primary purpose of the tests is to “measure” schools. Some secondary schools use the Year 6 SATs results for streaming. There is a lot of pressure to make children and parents believe test results determine children’s futures. Thus all the SATs revision guides in book shops and the after-school tutors claiming to prepare your child for SATs. School leaders and sometimes other school workers often play in to the narrative of these tests affecting the child’s life chances.

This puts an unbearable stress on young children. In August 2018, the Children’s Society described Britain as suffering “a children’s mental health crisis”. That is not just down to testing, but research by the NEU in 2018 demonstrated that nine in ten primary school teachers believe a SATs-based primary assessment system is detrimental to children’s well-being.

Teachers report children crying and having nightmares. HSST are used to label children as red (will not make national expectations), amber (not currently on course to make national expectations), and green (will make national expectation). So schools focus on preparing the “amber” children for the tests. “Red” and “green” children get less focus. Even the bosses’ organisation, the CBI, says that schools have become “exam factories” which don’t prepare children for life and work.

HSST narrows the curriculum

Many schools run additional revision and booster classes for the SATs. A union survey of teachers in 2017 found 70% of those schools withdrew students from other lessons, 20% ran classes in school holidays, 57% had classes after school and 23% during children and teachers’ lunch breaks. And it drives out good teachers. Many quit, saying that teaching isn’t the job they thought it was going to be or the job it used to be. School workers work in a system where their judgement and autonomy are undermined and where they regularly work hard doing things that they know are of no value for their children.

But you need some tests?

Most countries test much less than England. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland test less. There are many examples of assessment systems which warp learning and workload less, but provide accountability and rigour.

• Duncan Morrison is Assistant District Secretary of Lewisham NEU (writing in a personal capacity). Thanks to Patrick Yarker.

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