Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Layer 69 Getting Rid of Sats, Making Room for Learning.

Time for a round-up of recent articles on Sats, lest we forget the importance of this subject.
Firstly, the wonderful Jenni Russell’s piece in the Guardian on July 28th. The strapline said, “The minister's brazen denial of evidence that his school tests damage children is typical of this government's culture.” If you missed it, then catch up here:

Today there’s a column by Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA, which begins well but ends in a total muddle.

On the one hand Mr Taylor says, quite correctly, that too many schools are drab, joyless, assessment factories, and that Sats are essentially “a guide to school’s willingness and ability to teach to the tests”. On the other hand he seems to be in favour of keeping ‘top-down systems of accountability’ and ‘quasi-market mechanisms’.

What we actually need are bottom-up (i.e. teacher-driven) systems for monitoring pupil progress that also benefit pupils and teachers.

Without any evidence, other than the detested, misleading and unnecessary league tables, Mr Taylor says that underperformance in schools tends to be concentrated in the poorest areas. How is he judging underperformance? In terms of the children’s enjoyment of school and enjoyment of learning for its own sake? Of the development of their creativity and critical thinking skills; of their enjoyment of literature, whatever their level of reading; of their progress in emotional and social intelligence?

No - he’s back to talking about underperformance in terms of what the Sats themselves are assumed to measure - the ability to do well in timed tests. Many schools in the ‘poorest areas’ have done an amazing job to take the majority of the most disadvantaged children to at least Level 4 by the age of eleven without turning them off learning altogether and without teaching to the tests or failing to provide a broad, rich and balanced curriculum.

As he himself says, “disadvantaged pupils need content that is engaging and relevant, but they can find themselves in institutions obsessively focused on avoiding failing-school status“. As well as curriculum content that is rich and relevant they also need teachers who show them respect, who know how to raise their levels of interest, enjoyment, confidence and self-esteem, and who themselves are treated with respect and trust.

Mr Taylor concludes that “the search is on for a system that combines accountability and transparency with the scope for every school to be a place of creativity and “invention“. Did he ever read, I wonder, “All Our Futures”? Many schools throughout this country rightly prided themselves on being places of creativity, imagination and excitement prior to Sats, league tables and the Ofsted regime being cemented in place.

As for accountability and transparency, there are schools that are already using ICT-based tracking systems which can identify precisely where individual pupils have reached in terms of clear targets for knowledge, skills and concepts within reading, writing, maths and science, on the basis of teacher-supplied information which feeds through every single month or every half term to the school’s central server at the touch of a button.

Electronic tracking of pupil progress through specific learning targets and criteria from the Early Years onwards is already a reality. Teachers have always monitored pupil progress - without rigorous formative assessment it’s impossible to teach effectively. Many schools have invested in computer-based tracking systems and can produce from it masses of data and charts for whole-school, key stage, age group, and individual class level, as well as data broken down pupil by pupil. Such assessment and tracking, which can be verified by internal and external moderation, by sampling and monitoring, is far more sophisticated and useful than anything Sats can provide.
What must be obvious by now, to Mr Taylor and to government, is that Sats never were and never could be of benefit to pupils or teachers. As the likes of Melanie Philips never tire of reminding us, they exist to measure, grade and compare schools, nothing more. The fact that they don’t even do that effectively because they’re such a crude instrument that inevitably distorts and narrows real teaching and learning is not going to make a jot of difference to the attitude of this government - which shows no ability to learn from its mistakes.

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