`Data is king and our youngest pupils have become its subjects. Isn't it time we fought back?'

1st May 2015 at 01:00
By Jack Marwood

Every May, young children at schools in England experience a week quite unlike any other. Their teachers are particularly stressed, their parents more attentive and the school environment is altered visually and in the way it feels. Tension pervades the halls.

Welcome to Sats week: the period that the whole of Year 6 - and arguably the whole of the children's education so far - has been building towards. After six years of lessons, the 10- and 11-year-olds now have to show what they - and their school - are made of.

That's a lot of pressure on very young shoulders. We are putting children at the centre of accountability measures and, despite our best efforts, they know it. They know what a positive result would mean to their teachers, their school and their parents, and they know the consequences of a negative outcome. For many, it's too much. Every Year 6 teacher will tell you that some children crumble under the strain.

Yet there's no solution, no let-up on the horizon. Against a backdrop of rising anxiety in young people, we are not postponing the point where children become subject to external testing. Instead, we are bringing it forward.

The Year 1 phonics check is already with us, new Year 2 tests will be introduced in the next academic year and baseline assessments for four-year-olds will arrive a year later. Data is king and our youngest pupils have become its subjects. Isn't it time we fought back?

Lose the labels

Such is the acceptance of key stage 2 maths and English exams - known as "Sats" - as part of primary school life that we rarely question their ethical position these days, although Conservative Party proposals for retakes in Year 7 have, to some extent, reignited debate. But the introduction of these national curriculum tests in 1995 prompted much controversy. Teachers labelled them unfair and unworkable, while unions threatened boycotts.

As Viv Coy, a Year 6 teacher at the time, says: "They were something quite outside children's normal school experience. To my mind, introducing KS2 Sats was akin to reintroducing 11-plus tests [for grammar school entry]. It was not appropriate to label children in this way, and especially not if such labelling led to them being treated differently or deprived of something in their future education."

The tests have now been with us for two decades and the continued criticism has had little effect. The last major campaign against KS2 Sats was in 2010, when about 4,000 primaries refused to administer the tests in a boycott led by the NAHT and NUT unions. This protest followed years of calls for the exams to be scrapped by groups such as Authors Against the Sats, founded in 1993, and Stop the Sats, formed in 2003. Yet Year 6 continues to be defined by these end-of-key-stage tests.

Today, teachers do the best they can to manage the impact of Sats, but often to little effect. The tension is generally defused by clearing the timetable in the afternoons and stripping out anything that might put more pressure than necessary on the children. No new subject material is introduced, homework is not set and any ongoing core skills work is put on hold.

Yet the importance of the tests means that the pressure inevitably builds. The timetable and curriculum are being narrowed in many schools so that children can be drilled to pass with the highest possible marks.

The experience of Gloucestershire teacher Clare Jones is typical: her Year 6 pupils do Sats practice every morning from the beginning of the summer term until the tests in May.

Contagious anxiety

Children cannot help but pick up on teachers' anxiety as test week approaches. In many schools, the headteacher and other senior teaching staff become heavily involved in Sats preparation; when they do, it is clear to children that the tests are hugely important to the school.

The Sats themselves - which consist of working in exam conditions for extended periods of time and answering questions that, by definition, are too difficult for the majority of the children attempting them - are unpleasant for many pupils. "It is maddening to see them panicking, worried about their scores in the tests," Jones says.

"The students feel the pressure," agrees Richard Farrow, a Year 5 teacher at St Mark's CofE Primary School in Stockport. "Some children panic and don't do as well as they could, despite good preparation. I have seen children freeze and some enter the room in tears. A few love it, but many really hate it."

Such negative effects are not new and they have been highlighted by teachers repeatedly, which does not bode well for the next wave of testing. From September, children in Year 2 will be required to sit a completely new set of exams - including two reading tests, two maths tests, a two-part grammar and punctuation test, and a spelling test - to assess the revised national curriculum. Pupils aged 6 and 7 currently sit fewer, less formal tests. Given the pressure that will inevitably surround the results of the new exams, there is every possibility that Year 2 will become a mini Year 6.

Jess Edwards, a Year 2 teacher from London, certainly thinks the tests will be detrimental for her year group. "Although teachers in schools do their best to minimise the stressful and negative impact of testing at this young age, there is no getting around the fact that giving children a level of attainment based on a test score has a demoralising impact on many," she says. "Year 2 is often the first time they start to see themselves as a level. `I'm a 2c, what are you?' is a typical conversation."

Jones is also worried. Teachers go to great lengths to protect children from external pressures, but there is only so much they can do, she says, and she fears that Year 2 pupils will begin to realise the importance to the school of the new KS1 tests, as they have done in KS2.

Yet we already have national tests for even younger children. The phonics screening check at the end of Year 1 has been in place since 2012 and there have been no reports of a well-being crisis so far. Will the Year 2 exams really have such a negative impact?

Well, the phonics check is just one test, whereas there will be multiple exams in Year 2, all of which will be significantly different to the day-to-day experience of the children. And while widespread emotional problems have not been reported in Year 1, that doesn't mean children are not struggling.

Angela Whitaker, a teacher in Hull, has found that the phonics test confuses five- and six-year-olds, who are used to supported, collaborative schoolwork. Another primary teacher, who wishes to remain anonymous, says that pressure from parents and peers can often be extreme, adding that finding children in tears at test time is relatively common.

The Communication Trust, a consortium of more than 50 leading voluntary sector organisations, has also expressed concern over the test, pointing to the negative experience of children who have specific speech, language and communication needs.

Digging into the data

The phonics check holds another warning for us. As well as demonstrating the negative impact of testing on young children, it highlights the fact that all this upset may not even provide meaningful data.

The "expected standard" for the check - widely interpreted by parents and the media as a pass mark - was set at 80 per cent, or 32 out of 40 words. In 2012, 58 per cent of children "passed" the test. This rose to 69 per cent in 2013.

The frequency distribution graph of results makes for interesting viewing. There is an abrupt spike at 32 (the pass mark) and then a drop before the line continues upwards. This unnatural peak has led some to suggest that schools have been nudging the scores of borderline pupils up to ensure a pass. In 2014, the Department for Education did not release a pass mark and this phenomenon lessened, although the peak at 32 (the level many schools correctly guessed would remain the minimum expected standard) was not eradicated.

The pass rate also jumped markedly in 2014 to 74 per cent. These rises are almost certainly owing to an increased focus on the test within schools, rather than any significant change in children's ability. A whole industry has built up around ensuring that children pass the test, and schools teach with it in mind, drilling pupils so they will perform well.

Initial base scores followed by rapid rises in results as schools work out how to teach to the test are so common in assessment that this has been dubbed the "sawtooth pattern". Daniel Koretz, a professor of education at Harvard University, calls inflated scores after the introduction of any new assessment the "dirty secret of high-stakes testing". He adds that "when scores are inflated, many of the important conclusions based on them will be wrong, and students - and sometimes teachers - will suffer as a result".

But even if the data produced is meaningful, we must still question whether harvesting it is really worth the stress we are putting our youngest children under and the ongoing impact of that stress on their education.

Braced for more

With yet more testing and data-gathering around the corner, we need to answer this question soon. Plans are under way to introduce "baseline assessments" of the very youngest children in school in 2016, despite an almost unanimous chorus of disapproval.

As the Too Much, Too Soon campaign pointed out last year, children are of varying ages and developmental readiness when they join Reception classes, which could make the tests incredibly misleading, especially if children are inappropriately judged and labelled. There will be a temptation for teachers and schools to systematically underestimate children's ability on entry so that they can demonstrate rapid progress later on, and teachers will have no choice but to focus on the tests rather than the crucially important "settling in" period.

Organisations that have come out against the proposals include the Assessment Reform Group, (which reconvened specifically to voice concerns about these tests), the Cambridge Primary Review Trust, the Science Community Representing Education (Score) and the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (Acme).

"Assessment for very young children at this initial stage of school education is unreliable due to great variations in preschool experience," Acme says. "This is especially so for particular groups, such as pupils with English as an additional language, `looked after' pupils and those born in the summer."

Will this outcry be more successful than the protests against Sats, the phonics check and the 2016 Year 2 assessments? Or will data inevitably come to rule over the very youngest pupils in primary education? We can only hope that politicians see sense, and soon, or we'll be letting our hunger for data destroy pupils' thirst for education.

"The younger children are, the more damaging the testing will be for their future," says Year 2 teacher Edwards. "No child should have a fear of failure in school. This is, to my mind, the worst, most destructive feeling a child can have. It is not possible to achieve highly unless you are bold and independent and brave enough to try at new things. The end result will be children who are turned off from learning. Is that what we want for children when they start school?"

Jack Marwood is a primary school teacher who blogs at icingonthecakeblog.weebly.com

Where eight-year-olds take college-readiness tests

Ask an elementary school teacher in the US what they hate most about their job and they are likely to list five letters: PARCC.

The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers week launched this year. It involves a series of computer-based assessments for children in grades 3 to 11. Most teachers will tell you that these tests are highly disruptive and damaging to students.

Advocates of PARCC believe that more rigorous testing will help students to become college- and career-ready. In reality, a confusing format presented on a poorly designed interface drags children through the content and curriculum, inevitably demoralising them.

Among my eight-year-old students, the impact is worse than in older groups. They are too young to have such huge responsibility and expectation placed on their shoulders.

In addition, the test is highly dependent on computer skills, which leaves children from low-income families at a disadvantage. School budgets are also being hammered: the new computer-based format requires many schools to acquire enough computers to administer the test.

The impact is felt outside the assessments, too. The tests are administered over multiple days, taking away valuable instructional time.

So is it all worth it? Little evidence over the past decade has shown that standardised tests are closing achievement gaps and raising the standards of good teaching.

Are assessments important? Absolutely. But are these tests damaging our youngest students for little gain? Definitely.

The writer is an elementary school teacher in New Jersey, US

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