Primary education and standardised tests

The government is worried that standards in primary schools aren’t high enough. So what should they do about it? Put more money and effort into training and retaining excellent teachers, headteachers, and support staff? Find a system to recognise struggling pupils and give them the support they need?

Oh no, wait, this is the government. The solution is obviously to focus more on standardised test results.

Pupils in their final year of primary school already sit national exams (SATs) in Maths and English (the Science SATs have apparently been discontinued since I sat them). At the moment the results are in the form of levels: level 3 (obtained by about 25% of pupils) is below expectations, level 4 is expected, level 5 is impressive and level 6 is exceptional. The results are mainly used to create school league tables but also sometimes to stream pupils starting at secondary school. This system already creates stressed pupils and teachers, encourages teaching to the test and favours giving pupils practise Maths and English tests over teaching science, history, geography, art, music, P.E., or anything else. (When I was in year 6 we weren’t allowed to play in any netball matches for 6 months before the SATs.  I’m almost positive this did far more to increase our fear of the SATs than to increase our performance in them.)

As reported by the BBC, the new proposal is to replace the SATs with more challenging exams, and to tell the parents how their children are doing compared to others in their year by putting them in 10% ability bands. Because telling pupils they are in the bottom 10% of their year group right at the end of primary school, when it’s too late for their current school to help them and they’re about to make the potentially daunting transition to a new school, is going to be so effective in helping pupils be ready for secondary school?

Dear government: if your concern is making sure students are ready for secondary school, and you must achieve this by standardised testing, can you at least make the bar absolute rather than relative? And would it be too much to ask for you to have a plan for what to do with those kids who you do not deem ready for secondary school? Will you ever learn that measuring things more accurately is not the same thing as improving them, or that improving national average scores on standardised tests is not the same thing as improving the education system?

(Credit where it’s due: they are at least significantly increasing the level of funding for poor pupils.)

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