The real results of testing are starting to show

Laura Ralph

Primary assessment has been taking the media by storm in recent weeks. Against a turbulent backdrop of change in this area, a note of change was struck when the proposed removal of the Key Stage (KS) 1 SATs tests was announced at the end of March.

Campaigners may have felt like an ideological victory was won against tests dominating curriculum time. In a carefully worded move to get the sector on side, the announcement acknowledged the efforts of those who spoke out about their concerns that assessment was taking over. In the words of Justine Greening herself:

“The government has reformed the primary school system to make sure children can master the basics of literacy and numeracy so they get the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in later life.

Now we want to build on that by developing a stable assessment system that helps children learn, while freeing up teachers to do what they do best – supporting children to fulfil their potential.”

Yet Angela Rayner was quick to point out in the Guardian that this could be perceived as another “climb-down” on education policy for the government. SchoolsWeek has also reported on this in the light of a “chaotic year for primary assessment in 2016” which has led to increased stress amongst pupils, protests and boycotts by parents, leaked test papers and last-minute cancellations.

However, this was not just any government U-turn – this was being marketed as an up-turn. It is not the hedonistic removal of tests for the sake of popularity, but a re-vamp of how tests are organised to get a best measure of progress and accountability – by introducing a test into reception instead. The concept of a reception baseline test, although unsuccessfully organised first time round, has been supported by prominent figures including Russell Hobby of NAHT. The idea is that if a pupil is tested as soon as they start school, the end-of-school result is more of an accurate indication of the pupil’s learning journey throughout the whole of primary school.

It is also suggested in the consultation proposal that the assessment would be “teacher-mediated”, rather than a formal test, which might be a step in the right direction for addressing the increasing impact of exam pressure on mental health.

But to me, it seems ironic to remove one test, only to replace it with another. Kevin Courtney, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT), has said that the performance of a reception-age child cannot be a reasonable prediction of how they will perform aged 11. He says that it will narrow the early years curriculum, and drive a focus on formal learning which is not appropriate for the age group.

I have reception teacher friends whose love of teaching stems from the creative approach and holistic ethos of the early years curriculum. Will this encouraging, inclusive introduction to the education system be jeopardised by the re-run of baseline tests? Pupils need to be given a love of learning, not a test before they’ve even started learning. To me, that implies the test is more important than the learning.

Since then, a report on primary assessment from the House of Commons education committee indicates that there is a close link between testing and “a narrowing of the curriculum and ‘teaching to the test’, as well as affecting teacher and pupil well-being”.

The report makes a series of recommendations for the government, including requiring Ofsted to report on the breadth and balance of primary schools’ curriculum provision, changing performance tables to a three-year rolling average of KS2 results to reduce the impact of testing for school accountability on pupils’ learning, and improving the implementation of new primary tests in the future so that schools are better supported.

The Key’s  State of Education survey has also revealed over 1,000 school leaders’ responses to mental health issues, as covered by the Guardian on Monday. Headline findings indicate that 80% of primary school leaders worry more about pupils’ mental health during assessment periods than they did 2 years ago. School leaders told us about side effects to the KS2 SATs, including pupils sobbing through tests, and even a child losing their eyelashes as a result of stress.

All of these reports are underpinned by a core issue: the narrowing of curriculum focus in response to the demands of the new assessment requirements. The detrimental effects on pupils’ learning and wellbeing are becoming increasingly evident.

Any teacher will tell you that assessment preparation takes time away from a broader approach to pupils’ learning. Teaching time on subjects other than maths and English is reduced, the test-driven objectives become the priority, and opportunities for pupil-led learning, cross-curricular work or open-ended challenges are thin on the ground. And until now, teachers have felt the pressure of balancing engaging teaching with test preparation from the moment pupils can sit at a desk.

If the government is serious about tackling pupils’ mental health, surely broadening, not narrowing, their curriculum focus would be a step in the right direction. Can you imagine if, instead of reducing the curriculum to exclusively measuring literacy and numeracy, we continued to use the Early Learning Goals (ELGs) throughout primary schools, including managing feelings and behaviour, health and self-care, being imaginative and valuing understanding of the world? It’s difficult to find the curriculum space to value these, or any, additional goals if they are not embedded in an assessment system of their own. This is frustrating when teaching around the ELGs could be used to lessen any negative impact of our existing assessment systems on pupils.

This leads me to a recent Royal Academy of Engineering report which was in the news last month. It said that schools need to be teaching “problem solving skills”.  The BBC reported that engineers recommend a focus on “playful experimentation”, such as working with and adapting existing materials, tackling open-ended questions and generating creative solutions. To me, that sounds like an uncanny description of the inventiveness and breadth prevalent in the early years. Can reception teachers continue to cultivate this philosophy in the face of more assessment?

If we could re-organise the primary curriculum to encapsulate the early years approach, and lessen the impact of assessment requirements on teaching and learning, surely it can only benefit our pupils, now and in the future.

And it seems that I am not alone in wondering whether systems which reward ‘teaching to the test’ are creating the flexibly-minded members of society we need. The Institute of Directors has previously explained to TES that “the skills that are easiest to teach and test — method and recall — are also the easiest to automate”. This indicates that pupils who are naturally but exclusively good at tests could find themselves out of a job in the future.

This week, even Professor Brian Cox has questioned the idea of “using children as measurement probes” of school accountability, when it provides little evidence of improving education outcomes for pupils. If the scientist who can explain the origins of the universe is questioning the point of testing, I’d take that as a hint that something needs to change.

Also, after the rate of change in primary assessment in the last few years, can we honestly guarantee that if this baseline test is introduced, that the test system will be the same at the end of these reception pupils’ school careers, for the progress to be measured according to plan? I’m not convinced.

But encouraging a healthy, broad approach to learning, starting from the beginning of a pupil’s school career, might just improve pupils’ mental health and future employability, as well as the quality of their education.

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