Stop whingeing and recognise the national tests can be used to benefit children, says Colin Doctor
Pick up The TES and it's not hard to find an article lamenting league tables and the dreaded Sats. But the tests are here to stay and I believe that, rather than complaining, we should see if they can be used to really benefit children.
Critics say the tests damage children and narrow the curriculum, as schools feel forced to teach to the test to boost their scores and keep Ofsted at bay. Parents worry about the pressure on children and potential long-term effects on their education.
But such criticisms fail to recognise that the tests can help us with assessment for learning. Yes, that's right. I'm suggesting the Sats be used positively as an assessment tool. I think they can hold the key to the development of a creative and diverse curriculum.
The way forward lies in a simple question: when do children learn best? I have found that when children appreciate what they can do now they can see how to progress. Each child should be aware of and take pride in what they can do and work with their teacher on areas for development. They should be truly involved in their own learning, set targets for themselves and seek to beat their personal best. And this is what the Sats are offering us.
My own awakening started seven years ago when I started teaching Year 6 in a primary in Yorkshire. I was given the task of raising the Sats results, which had been in decline, and I was desperate not to teach to the test.
The school had a long tradition of imaginative and exciting work, but its assessment procedures were limited.
Very early in the school year we gave the children a past Sats paper under near-exam conditions. The papers showed a wide range of scores, but it was clear that the children cared about their work. We didn't simply give the pupils their scores, but worked with them to analyse the papers and gave them clear guidance on changes to make in their work, which brought immediate improvements.
Suddenly a new sense of trust developed. We challenged the children to identify what improvements they could make that would result in a 5 to 10 per cent score increase each time we looked at a Sats paper.
To help this we encouraged the pupils to mark their own work and become familiar with the marking scheme, and importantly, to understand the steps, or progression, within the curriculum. Results soared and a year or so later the school received a school achievement award. But most importantly we felt we were actually meeting the children's needs.
It wasn't just about the tests. Demystifying the Sats, using them to ensure children are aware of what is expected of them, and allowing them to practise what they have learned in class, has empowered children to take the lead in their own learning. This frees teachers to explore cross-curricular possibilities and develop the diverse, creative curriculum that we aspire to.
Many assessment systems fail to pinpoint where the child is. Termly targets from the national literacy strategy seldom translate into meaningful goals for children. By the time the targets are chosen, written and re-written they are often out of date.
New trends seem to influence assessment more than other aspects of the curriculum, and lessons where children talk about what "should, could and would" be achieved can only really be effective if they are translated into explicit performance indicators that everyone understands.
Sats offer such explicit performance measures and the basis for an effective programme of learning for every primary school.
Colin Doctor is a student of the University of Sheffield Doctorate in Education programme
THE POWER OF TESTS
How do the children identify areas for development?
Each child has two "progression sheets" - for longer and shorter pieces of writing - that they refer to when reflecting on their work.
They are based on the KS2 marking schemes and identify the components of each assessment band. They help children realise the level their work is at - and what they need to do to improve.
For example, a child may spot that the characters in her story are not showing their feelings. This issue will be discussed as a class, in groups or in pairs and she will be asked to re-plan the story including suggestions made. Or the children may decide to look up examples of similes and metaphors.
A swift analysis of a past Sats paper identifies class and individual strengths and weaknesses. The teacher shares these with children on a one-to-one basis. If the results show many children are struggling with fractions, for example, we will work on this as a class, or children can work on issues in groups, pairs or individually.
They can also work through a textbook or use online programs such as BBC Bitesize. The children like working online as programs provide a test at the end of each section. Support outside school hours comes from a local LearnDirect Centre that lets pupils access education websites one night a week free of charge.