Seven Alleged Government Arguments for SAT Assessment Are Refuted Here

1. SAT assessment is alleged to support classroom learning.

The essential reason for assessing a pupil is to see what educational progress is being made and hence determine what the pupil should do next. It enables the teacher week by week to devise targets for pupils and ensure that work is geared to steady progress. It is self-evident that a set of tests at the end of primary education is of no use in assessment for learning.

The statement from the government website for parents that ‘Your child will take national tests at the end of Key Stage 2. … This helps the school to make plans for their future learning,’ overlooks the fact that the children leave the school shortly after taking the tests!

Verdict: SATs do not support classroom learning.

2. SAT results are alleged to inform parents of their child’s progress.

Does it really help parents to be told, when the child leaves primary school, ‘your child is at level 4 in English, maths and science’? What are needed are regular written reports on the child’s progress across the curriculum and the opportunity to discuss progress with the class teacher: as a result of successful government initiatives this is now standard practice in primary schools across the country. Relationships between teachers and parents support the ongoing education of the children – bland SAT numbers do not helpfully inform parents.

Verdict: SATs give inadequate information, and too late, to parents

3. SAT results are alleged to help parents choose their child’s school.

Rural and many suburban areas rarely offer a choice of primary schools within easy distance of home. In urban areas there may be a choice of two or three primary schools and the best way of choosing is to visit each school, read the prospectus and the recent self-evaluation report and, above all, talk to other parents. SAT results for 11-year-olds are of little help since much can change in the six years before the incoming child leaves. League tables in local newspapers do not help parents choose a school. They make for good gossip but poor guidance!

Verdict: SATs do not help parental choice in a meaningful way.

4. SAT results are alleged to provide accountability of schools.

Since schools are funded from the public purse they should be accountable to the public. Nobody challenges that. But SAT results are a poor indicator of whether there is ‘value for money’. Schools are not on a level playing field: however good the teaching is, the social environment has a large effect on children’s achievements.

Public accountability should be through a school’s governing body. This body, democratically chosen to represent parents and other sections of the community, and supported by the local authority, should recognise the achievements and potential of the school, comprehend the problems of the catchment area, and judge the school accordingly. Local knowledge is best for tackling local issues. Governors should challenge and support the work of a school while trusting the professionalism of teachers in terms of their integrity and determination to do what is best for each pupil. Such an approach will put to good use the substantial investment that has been made by government into school governor training.

Verdict: SATs provide a poor form of accountability.

5. SAT results are alleged to provide national monitoring of standards.

It seems a national pastime to speculate whether educational standards are rising or falling. Politicians use the SATs results either to praise the achievements of their own party or to lambast their opponents. But academics on the basis of research find that the evidence is too problematic for such speculation to be meaningful. Year by year like is not being compared with like. As the Select Committee noted:

    ‘the purpose of national monitoring of the education system, particularly for policy formation, is best served by sample testing to measure standards over time and that cohort testing is neither appropriate nor, in our view, desirable for this purpose. We recommend further that, in the interests of public confidence, such sample testing should be carried out by a body at arms length from the Government.’(para 186)
Rigorous sample monitoring across the country would be much more effective, as was the case before a Conservative administration abolished the Assessment of Performance Unit.

Verdict: SATs are not a valid tool for measuring changes in national educational standards.

6. SAT assessments are alleged to give continuity in education when pupils transfer from primary to secondary school.

Originally this was seen as an important use of Key Stage 2 SAT results. But many secondary schools now choose to test the children on arrival rather then use SATs data from the primary feeder schools. As The Independent reported on 18 July 2008

    ‘Most secondary schools have already introduced their own tests because they do not believe the SATs are a reliable indicator of the pupils’ ability.’

Verdict: SATs are no longer an aid to transfer between schools.

7. SAT assessment as a tool for raising standards in schools in order to sustain future economic growth is problematic.

We are constantly being told by businessmen that the national workforce has insufficient people with the skills that will be needed in the future for our economy to remain competitive in world markets. This seems to be a major reason for putting pressure on schools to ensure that greater numbers of pupils achieve the ‘expected’ levels in the SATs and later at GCSE etc. But claims that standards are rising due to this pressure are being challenged on the grounds that schools are increasingly ‘teaching to the test’ to the detriment of an all-round education. As the Select Committee said:

    ‘We received substantial evidence that teaching to the test, to an extent which narrows the curriculum and puts sustained learning at risk, is widespread. … We have no doubt that teachers generally have the very best intentions in terms of providing the best education they can for their pupils. However, the way that many teachers have responded to the Government’s approach to accountability has meant that test results are pursued at the expense of a rounded education for children.’ (para 130)

So, it is highly doubtful whether the future economic health of the nation is being aided by primary school SATs, while the needs of employers for creative workers who can collaborate and work in teams, are being side-tracked. Beyond this it is also uncertain, with global warming and unpredictable climate change, whether competitive struggle for dominance in world markets will be a prime national concern when our young people reach adulthood. What is certain is that while obviously young people need a good command of mathematics and English, they also need a broad and balanced education which develops their talents in many dimensions so that individually and collectively they can respond to the mounting problems of a troubled world.

Verdict: There is doubt as to whether SATs are helpful to the future economic health of the country.

What would happen if Sats were abandoned? Click here