The current system of standardised testing in primary schools is not fit for purpose.

There is a great deal of evidence demonstrating that the current regime is damaging to children’s well-being, demoralising for teachers and provides little real information about the performance of schools.

We believe there are more efficient ways to measure the performance of schools and more compassionate and beneficial ways to assess children as they progress through primary school.

We’ve brought together our case against standardised testing, our proposed alternative to the current system and further evidence from academics and experts proving that our children deserve to be More Than A Score.

The case against standardised testing

Evidence is growing that the current regime of standardised testing is not fit for purpose.

Standardised testing leads to a narrowing of the curriculum

High stakes testing is used to determine teachers’ pay or ranks schools against each other. Research shows that, as a result, teachers focus on the limited scope of the test and, for months on end, the curriculum narrows to just English and maths (e.g. Clarke et al. 2003; Jones and Egley 2004; Children, Schools and Families Committee 2008; Rothstein et al 2008; Alexander 2010).

In 2008, the Children, Schools and Families Committee found that “any efforts by the government to introduce more breadth into the school curriculum are likely to be undermined by the enduring imperative for schools, created by the accountability measures, to ensure that their pupils perform well in national tests”.

Children with low attainment, disadvantaged pupils and those with special educational needs are affected by this narrowing of the curriculum to an even greater degree as they will tend to spend even more time focusing on English and maths through booster and catch-up sessions, at the expense of the rest of the curriculum (Hutchings 2015).

In research by the NEU in 2018, nearly nine in ten (88%) teachers said that SATs do not benefit children’s learning.

SATs leads to an education that doesn’t meet the needs of all children

Research by the NEU in 2018 summarised teachers concerns about SATs on certain groups of children.

  • 88% thought that children with special educational needs and disabilities are particularly disadvantaged.
  • 66% thought EAL pupils, for whom English is an additional language, are particularly disadvantaged
  • 54% believed summer-born children — the youngest in the class — are disadvantaged.

In response to high stakes testing, teachers adopt a teaching style which emphasises transmission teaching of knowledge (rote-learning). This favours those students who prefer to learn in this way and disadvantages and lowers the self-esteem of those who prefer more active and creative learning experiences (Harlen and Deakin Crick 2002).

Standardised testing places an added burden on children’s self-esteem, well-being and mental health

Research by the NEU in 2018 demonstrated that nine in ten primary school teachers believe a SATs-based primary assessment system is detrimental to children’s well-being. Teachers reported children crying, having nightmares and being so stressed they needed additional support (NEU 2018).

More Than A Score’s own research showed that almost one in four pupils place so much importance on SATs, they believe that SATs results will help them to find a job in the future.

Children with higher levels of emotional, behavioural, social, and school well-being, on average, have higher levels of academic achievement and are more engaged in school. Relationships between emotional, behavioural, social, and school wellbeing and later educational outcomes are generally similar for children and adolescents, regardless of their gender and parents’ educational level (DfE 2012).

SATs place an added burden on teachers

Research by the NUT in 2016 showed that:

  • 86% of primary teachers said that morale has declined in the last two years.
  • Three quarters or primary teachers describe their morale as low or very low.
  • Almost half (48%) of primary teachers said they are considering leaving the profession within the next two years. Workload was cited as a factor by 93% of respondents. Other reasons include the rapid pace of curriculum change (60%) and teacher mental health concerns (50%). (NUT, 2016)

The phonics check restricts teaching methods and hampers children’s love of reading

Recent research by Margaret M Clark and Jonathan Glazzard concluded that the Year 1 phonics check provides no useful information on pupils and that heads, teachers and parents believe it should be discontinued. Heads described the detrimental effects of the test on pupils including good young readers becoming tearful and anxious about the use of nonsense words.

What's the alternative?

We believe assessment of children’s learning is essential for both teachers and parents. We also believe that schools should be measured and held accountable to children, parents, local communities and the government.

Testing, designed to enable the accountability of schools, has a massive negative effect on teaching and learning. SATs are used to assess how well the school is doing. They offer no benefit to the children themselves. Research has shown that the use of standardised tests to bring about improvements in scores leads teachers to focus their efforts too narrowly on test performance – ‘teaching to the test’.

Tests reduce the complexity of children’s learning to a simple numerical score. This cannot represent children’s broader knowledge and understanding and is grossly misleading – children are more than a score.

We believe that the current system of testing every individual child in order to judge the effectiveness of teachers and schools is deeply flawed.

At More Than A Score, we are committed to:

  • Transforming the current system of assessment and accountability, so that it is no longer based on scores derived from standardised testing, and the league tables they generate.
  • Promoting a range of forms of assessment to support teaching and learning, rather than judge schools
  • Exploring new approaches to accountability, that do not involve the national testing of every child.

Assessment to support teaching and learning

In the classroom, we want to see both formative and summative assessment. Formative assessment is assessment that supports pupils while they are learning. It is based on observing what children can do, in order to promote discussion and feedback between learner and teacher. Summative assessment tests pupils to find what they have learned at a particular point in time – at the end of a project or unit of work, for instance. Teachers should be trusted to use their professional expertise in determining the best methods of assessment.  In some countries, summative tests can be based on national ‘question banks’ that help schools compare how well their children are doing. In others, teachers use portfolios of children’s work for the same purpose. Formative and summative assessments can be combined in an approach that is detailed, rigorous and supports high quality teaching.

We want an assessment system which enables teachers in different schools to compare the progress made by their pupils, against national standards. This can be done by teachers coming together to moderate pupils’ work. The results of moderation will feed into a school’s self-evaluation and plan for self-improvement. This in turn will be assisted by inspection of schools designed to support as well as challenge.

Parents should be acknowledged as partners in children’s learning and need information that enables them to support their children’s learning. For reports to be meaningful to parents, they need to summarise what children can do and understand. Some schools already aim to produce rich, detailed descriptive reports on pupils’ progress, that use the outcomes of formative and summative assessment to inform feedback to parents and pupils, and to plan learning development. Teachers should regularly discuss with parents the individual issues which diagnostic assessments have helped them to identify.

Monitoring of standards has a role in helping the primary school system improve. To make transparent what they have done, schools should produce evaluations of their work, to present to parents and other stake-holders. Schools would continue to be inspected. Inspection would explore a wide range of areas and the school’s strategies for improvement. The outcomes would be advice and appropriate support (including from other schools) leading to a revised and renewed school development plan.

There is no need to impose high-stakes testing of every child to provide the necessary information. We propose that national monitoring of system quality and standards be carried out by testing a representative sample of children: a sample of 5000 pupils would be large enough to provide reliable national results. Tests could include different curriculum areas, so that over the years a picture of standards across the whole curriculum would become available.

The outcomes of the sample tests would be published nationally, allowing:

  • comparisons between different groups of children taking into account a range of relevant contextual factors.
  • a review of aspects of the curriculum in which children are generally doing better and less well, designed to inform teachers work
  • and, where the issues merited it, an agenda for research to strengthen system improvements.

If you would like to read more about alternatives to the current system, please download a free copy of our book, Beyond the Exam Factory. It brings together experience and expertise from a number of countries.

Additional research

The Phonics Screening Check: An Independent Enquiry into the views of heads, parents and pupils

This independent research by Margaret Clark and Jonathan Glazzard proves that heads, teachers and parents are overwhelmingly opposed to the Year 1 phonics check.

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Baseline Assessment: Why It Doesn’t Add Up.

We have prepared a dossier bringing together the case against the introduction of baseline assessment with arguments from academics and experts.


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Exam Factories? The Impact of Accountability Measures on Children and Young People

This independent research was commissioned by the National Union of Teachers and conducted by Professor Merryn Hutchings.

This is a wide ranging research project that incorporates a survey of almost 8,000 teachers, an extensive literature review and quantitative research utilising case studies of both heads and teachers and children. Taken together, this research demonstrates the negative impact on children and young people in England of the current accountability measures in schools.

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They’re Children… Not Robots, Not Machines: The Introduction of Reception Baseline Assessment

The National Union of Teachers and Association of Teachers and Lecturers commissioned Dr Alice Bradbury and Dr Guy Roberts Holmes to conduct independent research into baseline assessment. The research showed that teachers and school leaders had serious doubts as to the accuracy of the assessment and its use in measuring progress. Baseline assessment led to ‘stopping teaching’ and was not seen as helping teachers get to know pupils better.

This research report and the campaign surrounding it played an important role in the Government’s earlier abandonment of Baseline Assessment and the report received the 2016 BERA SAGE Public Impact Award.

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The Mismeasurement of Learning

The Mismeasurement of Learning is a collection of short essays presenting the evidence and the arguments around curriculum and assessment in primary education. Brought together by Reclaiming Schools and the NUT, essay authors include John Coe, Pam Jarvis and Guy Roberts-Holmes and Alice Bradbury.

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Synergies for Better Learning: An International Perspective on Evaluation and Assessment

OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) (2013) Synergies for Better Learning: An International Perspective on Evaluation and Assessment, OECD Reviews of Evaluation and Assessment in Education. This report compares the experience of 28 OECD countries, analyses the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches, and offers policy advice on using evaluation and assessment to improve the quality, equity and efficiency of education.

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Assessment, Standards and Quality of Learning in Primary Education

Wynne Harlen’s report provides a critical review of the assessment system in England introduced between 2014 and 2016, in the light of evidence from research and practice in six other countries. It begins with some ground-clearing discussion of the terms used in relation to tests and other forms of pupil assessment. The next two sections concern the purposes of assessment, particularly formative and summative assessment, the uses of summative assessment data for accountability and national monitoring and the impact on curriculum content and pedagogy. Section four describes how assessment for these purposes and uses is conducted in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, New Zealand, Sweden and France, concluding with an overview of themes running through these examples. The main points from this analysis are drawn together in the fifth section, providing a critical perspective on the system in England in light of alternative approaches in other systems. Finally some implications for policy and practice are identified.

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NSPCC - 'Under Pressure'

NSPCC ChildLine focused their annual report 2013-14 on children’s mental health. ‘Under Pressure’ highlighted the increase in calls to ChildLine from primary-age children about school related stress, anxiety and other mental health problems.

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Inappropriate, unhelpful and unnecessary: the headteachers' verdict on Baseline Assessment

This report from Dr Alice Bradbury at UCL Institute of Education demonstrates headteachers’ opposition to reception baseline assessment.

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Multiple concerns

This report details NAHT members’ response to the multiplication tables check.

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Pressure, anxiety and collateral damage: the headteachers' verdict on SATs

This report from Dr Alice Bradbury at UCL Institute of Education provides a detailed insight into the negative effects of SATs across the whole school.

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