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.
Headteachers oppose the current system
The most telling comment from one of the 288 heads interviewed by University College London’s Dr Alice Bradbury for her 2019 research into primary school testing was: “In an ideal world I would not want to ever put a child through this.”
Strong words, but evidence suggests they are deserved. Consider these headteachers’ attitudes towards SATs, revealed in a YouGov survey in 2019:
And these comments from headteachers show the depth of feeling behind the statistics:
“We teach a curriculum that we would not otherwise feel is appropriate for 10- and 11-year-olds.”
“Preparation for SATs starts as soon as the three-year-olds step through the door, with the unfortunate effect of encouraging setting from as early as year 3 or 4.”
“On a moral level I’m opposed to setting, although that’s exactly what I have in Year 6. Not just two or three sets – on a daily basis there might be six sets. I’m not a fan of it, but SATs definitely encourages setting, and I know that lots and lots of schools set from Year 3 or 4 onwards.”
“To brand children as failures in Year 6, it goes against everything that we come into teaching for.”
“Our school will be judged on how well we do in the SATs, and if we don’t improve on last year’s results, I will lose my job. This is an intolerable pressure.”
“In a very impoverished area, with extreme poverty, violent crime and drugs, what we provide is so much more than the sum of our SATs results.”
“it’s just not right that on one day, these children can be judged on their whole schooling, from Reception to Year 6.”
Parents’ attitudes to formal testing at primary school level in a research study by YouGov makes sobering reading. It should raise serious concerns about the current system:
All in all, the evidence that the current primary school system has a negative effect on both school and family life is overwhelming. Parents see this as particularly concerning in the light of the coronavirus pandemic, the prospect of taking SATs and any other government tests will just add to children’s stress. Only 8% consider that preparing for government tests in the 2020/2021 school year is important.
Parents’ top priority is safety, mental health and an enjoyable, rounded curriculum. They want their children to catch up properly and love learning, not have them cramming a narrow catch-up curriculum geared towards passing high-stakes government tests in English and maths.
Originally scheduled for September 2020, the government is delaying the introduction of the new Reception Baseline Assessment (RBA) maths and English test until September 2021. The test has earned almost universal disapproval. Designed to be taken by four-year-olds within six weeks of starting school, a time when young children vary greatly in their stages of development, the results tell teachers nothing. Parents won’t even find out how their children got on; instead, the government will keep the test results for seven years and eventually use the data to measure schools.
Teachers are not impressed. When asked for their views 77% declared that Baseline did not yield any useful information about their pupils that they wouldn’t otherwise have had. Describing the test as a ‘tick-box’ exercise, they felt it devalued teachers’ professional judgment about children and their learning needs. Not only did 83% say that carrying out Baseline tests increased their workload, 80% didn’t believe that this 20-minute one-to-one provided an accurate picture of children’s current attainment.
Headteachers share the views of teaching staff, with 73% surveyed holding negative views of Baseline testing, and 96% believing that the first few weeks of school should not be spent preparing for tests. Add to this the 80% who believe that these assessments are not fair on children with a summer birthday, special educational needs, or for whom English is not their mother tongue.
Further comments from headteachers included: “totally unnecessary”, “utter nonsense”, “a terrible idea”, “…one of the most poorly conceived ideas I have experienced in my 30-plus years of teaching”.
“Who really believes that assessing four- and five-year-olds and using that as a benchmark for seven years of progress, is a good idea?” asked one head. “Less than 20% of my pupils are at my school for their entire primary education. What will this assessment tell me about my school?”
“Absolutely ridiculous,” commented another head. “Just trust the teachers to carry out a baseline assessment and trust their judgement. It will be precious time wasted on tests when they should be getting to know the children.”
Parents are equally less than keen: 65% are opposed to subjecting children to a formal test in English and maths when they first start school.
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. Headteachers described the detrimental effects of the test on pupils, including good young readers becoming tearful and anxious about the use of nonsense words.
Having canvassed headteachers who took part in the Multiplication Tables Check pilot, school leaders union NAHT concluded that the government should abandon its plans to roll the test out to year 4 in June 2020. This is not to say that when children have a quick recall of times tables, it helps with more complicated mathematical problem solving. However, schools already teach and assess multiplication, and 94% of respondents say this new test only adds to teachers’ workload with no benefit to pupils. It doesn’t tell school professionals anything they don’t already know about a pupil’s mathematical ability.
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:
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:
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.
The use of the Phonics Screening Check in Year 2: The views of Year 2 teachers and headteachers
In the summer of 2020, as part of the government’s arrangements for examinations and testing under COVID-19, all statutory assessments in primary schools were cancelled, including the Phonics Screening Check (PSC) in Year 1. In June 2020, the government announced that the PSC would be moved to the autumn term, and made the reporting of results to the Department of Education (DfE) a statutory requirement (STA, 2020).
Primary Assessment and COVID
Researchers at the International Literacy Centre, UCL London concluded that all statutory primary assessment should be suspended in the 2020/21 school year.
Too many tests for no good reason
Our research demonstrates that the majority of parents disagree with the government’s policy of using SATs and other formal tests to judge primary schools. In sharp contrast to the government’s position, parents do not prioritise the data generated by the tests to make decisions about their children’s education and do not believe the current system is a fair way to measure schools.
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.
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.
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.
Research into the 2019 pilot of RBA
Dr. Guy Roberts-Holmes, conducted research with teachers into the pilot of the Reception Baseline Assessment (RBA).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.