National tests could return for infant pupils

26th June 2015 at 01:00
Government considers plans to replace teacher assessment of KS1

Ministers are considering bringing back national tests for seven-year-olds in a move that would plunge relations between teachers and the government to a new low, TES understands.

Results from the government tests would be collected centrally by the Department for Education and then published to hold schools accountable for pupils' progress. The new Sats would replace the current key stage 1 teacher assessments used to measure attainment in reading, writing, maths and science.

Union leaders have threatened to boycott the tests if they are introduced, branding the proposals a "disaster".

Senior government advisers and officials are understood to be pushing for the change as the DfE struggles to get to grips with how pupil progress will be measured and recorded now that national curriculum levels have been removed.

TES has been told that schools minister Nick Gibb is seriously considering the proposals. He is understood to be particularly concerned about the existing KS1 assessments because thousands of primary schools have opted to use test-free baseline assessments for four-year-olds.

Locked and `loaded up'

A senior source told TES that "loading up" on two sets of teacher-assessed data to measure progress was deemed to be problematic. "Nick Gibb is looking at the idea of scrapping teacher assessment in KS1 tests entirely in favour of having reported tests. It is because there is a difficulty with using teacher assessment for progress, plus they want to reduce teachers' workload," the source said.

"The issue is that you can't measure progress accurately with teacher assessment, and there are incentives for schools to depress pupils' scores to show that progress is being made."

National tests at KS1 were abandoned in favour of teacher assessment in 2004 because of long-standing concerns about the pressure they were placing on infants. A TES poll of parents found that a third of seven-year-olds were suffering from stress as a result of the tests, and one in 10 was losing sleep.

Under the current system, pupils at the end of KS1 are assessed by their teachers through a mixture of set tasks and compulsory tests selected by the school from a central bank of papers. Results are collected and moderated externally by local authorities, but individual schools are moderated only every four years.

The new proposals would mean pupils being assessed purely through national tests. These could be internally marked by teachers, but the results would be fed back to the DfE for external moderation and published on a school-by-school basis.

Professor Robert Coe, a member of the government's Commission on Assessment Without Levels - which is looking into how progress will be measured - refused to be drawn on the claims. But the Durham University expert did reveal his concerns about how KS1 assessments were currently conducted.

"It can become reductionist quite easily," he said. "There is the classic example of kids at KS2 being taught that they need to use a range of sentence openers to reach level 4 and then it becomes a formula. It literally becomes writing by numbers."

`Disastrous' proposals

But any return to national tests for seven-year-olds will be met with strong union opposition.

"Teaching unions have boycotted Sats previously and this sort of shock to the system is the kind that would lead to unions jointly taking steps to block these radical changes," said Kevin Courtney, deputy general secretary of the NUT teaching union.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union, labelled the proposals "a disaster".

"People have had test after test imposed upon them and they would see it as a step too far," he said. "My members would take it very badly if they had to abandon teacher assessment, which was a key part of the review we agreed upon years ago."

In 2013, Ofsted's chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw called for the return of Sats at both KS1 and KS3, saying it had been "a mistake" to scrap the tests.

"In getting rid of the tests, we conceded too much ground to vested interests," he said. "If we are serious about raising standards and catching up with the best in the world, we need to know how pupils are doing at 7, 11, 14 and 16."

But Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL teaching union, said: "The tests were abolished because they were shown to be narrowing the curriculum and they were corrupting foundation stage and early education.

"This shows the department is in a mess and has no idea what it intends to do following the removal of levels. Bringing back tests would be a total nonsense."

`Teacher assessment shows much more'

Rachel Tomlinson, pictured, headteacher of Barrowford Primary School in Lancashire, says a decision to bring back national tests would be a "backward step".

"By relying on teacher assessment it shows that the government values teachers' professional judgement, and that is a lot of what [education secretary] Nicky Morgan has been saying recently - that she values the profession. Bringing back national tests totally goes against that. Politicians need to use more than just words when it comes to valuing teachers," Ms Tomlinson says.

The headteacher sparked media attention last year when she wrote to her pupils ahead of their key stage 2 Sats, telling them that the tests could never show what made each of them "special and unique".

She says now: "Teacher assessment shows so much more about a pupil than one half-hour test ever could.

"Plus, most schools use tests to support their teacher assessment anyway."

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