Testing this year's models

10th February 1995 at 00:00
The new teacher-friendly SATs are exposing inconsistencies in other parts of the assessment jungle.

SAT arrangements for 1995 are, yet again, modified in the light of experience. The main changes - external marking of key stage 2 and 3 tests; grants to LEAs for supply cover to support key stage 1 testing; assessment of very bright key stage 1 children through key stage 2 tests; guidance in the test handbook on how flexible teachers can be when they set the tasks; changes to the layout of the printed materials - have been well publicised. All of them have emerged either from consultation with, or as the result of pressure from, teachers.

The one certainty about SATs at present is that they are here to stay. The decision by the Department for Education to review them is clear evidence of that - as the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's chief executive Nick Tate commented in January, his organisation sees the purpose of the review as ensuring "that the assessment arrangements are firmly on track to deliver full information in future about standards of performance in all our schools".

Nevertheless, SATs have changed drastically since their first appearance mainly, according to many teachers, because they are trying, in vain, to serve social as well as educational purposes. A local authority assessment adviser who is also an OFSTED inspector told me that: "The SAT materials are attractive, expensively produced, ever so helpful for teachers to use in themselves, but as a measure of what pupils can do they are extremely limited and get more limited as time goes by. The teacher assessment is much more important - which is why I regret the passing of a statutory framework for auditing teacher assessment."

And Warwickshire head Robert Jelley speaks for many when he suggests that: "It was society that decided to do them, and so we just have to get on with it." Material for key stage 2 SATs has just arrived on his desk. "As a school that's not been involved before, we look forward to them with interest. The actual tasks do not look problematic."

One thing that does concern him is the extent to which teachers might, or should, teach to the tests. "Good teachers don't want children to do badly because in maths, say, they have been working to a scheme which uses slightly different language from that of the tests." The actual organisation of the tests, though, "is not going to be all that horrendous. We're going to leave them till the last minute, because the children will be a little older and wiser!"

He insisted, though, that the DFE and the authorities had to come up with the goods on supply cover. "If they want to keep goodwill, they have to be generous, otherwise jaundice will set in."

SCAA emphasises that the SATs emerge from a long and careful process which has lots of teacher input at every stage, from the initial question writing to the piloting in schools. The figures are impressive - last year, for example, key stage 2 SATs were piloted with 8,000 children in 325 schools, and there was also a special needs pilot. The lessons from this sort of consultation are obviously taken on board - the need for more reading time is just one example.

There are other indicators, too, of the move towards greater teacher-friendliness - for instance, externally marked scripts will be going back into schools after marking, something which GCSE boards have not so far countenanced.

The contrast has already been noticed by teachers. Dave Crossley, head of Deer Park School in Cirencester, believes, in fact, that there is now a clear philosophical rift between SATs and GCSE:"The present GCSE criteria were revised pre-Dearing in a very different climate. As a result most GCSEs represent the attitudes of a different time. It's not just the coursework issue, there are other subtle things - the styles of the papers, the tiers of assessment."

If the interface between the national curriculum and GCSE is a worry at one end of the secondary school, the anxiety at the other is that the arrival of Year 7 pupils with fully authenticated national curriculum levels will challenge their ability to take pupils on from the point they have reached at the end of primary school. Up to now, the tendency in many secondaries has been to discount - or at best cast doubt on - those teacher-awarded KS2 levels which did not accord with their Year 7 schemes of work. SATs will strengthen the arm of those primary heads who already worry about this.

There are other related problems, still to emerge, around the fact that children will be leaving primary school with SAT-strengthened levels. One is to what extent the levels can be used as a starting point for "value added". Most commentators feel that they are too broad, and the danger is that there will be a demand for more finely graded divisions - "Someone will want to talk about level 2.8," said one head.

So not only are SATs here to stay, but the arguments about them are probably going to be around for a long time, too.

KEY STAGES 1-3 ASSESSMENT

Summary of changes for 1995KS1 tasks and tests * EnglishMore consistent format for reading comprehension. No separate spelling test at level 1. Level 4 pupils assessed with KS2 material * MathsTask for level 1. Test for levels 2 and 3 Number still the main focus, butother aspects of maths now covered. Reading demands reduced. Level 4 pupils assessed with KS2 materialKS2 (statutory tests andtasks for the first time)z External markingA guidance booklet, "Special arrangements for KS2 tests"to use with pupils who need help to demonstrate attainment should be in schools now) Schools which piloted or chose to use KS2 testsin 1994 will notice thefollowing changes: * Maths More number work in levels 3-5Overall work slightly reduced,but questions more challengingReduced language demands * ScienceOverall time reduced. Language simpler, but correct terms still used * EnglishReading time added to comprehension and writing tests KS3 * External markingFew changes to papers * English15 minutes' reading time addedto both papers * ScienceAttention to language; tasks reduced from 3 to 2 * MathematicsTasks slightly simpler, less repetitiveTeacher assessment in all three key stages: No statutory external audit or moderation

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