In the latest of his articles, Head of WGJS Andrew Hymer questions whether the current procedures for assessing primary school youngsters offer the best method for ensuring greater and deeper long term learning...
Assessment, but at what price?
We have all read in the press about exam board officials hinting at the content of future exams. Such speculation continues to pour further doubt on our exam system. At 16 and at 18 there is a need for a reliable measure of a young person’s academic ability. The ‘high stakes’ of GCSE and A level inevitably means that a great deal of teaching and learning is focussed on exam preparation to the detriment of learning in its broadest sense. Primary schools similarly have not escaped the ‘high stakes’ testing.
Year 6 in most schools has become a procession of old exam papers as teaching becomes driven by the test. As tests draw near, practice becomes more intense as children are herded through question after question. Learning for many becomes superficial and the long summer holidays lie in wait to erode the shallow learning that takes place.
Good primary schools offer children opportunity and challenge them to broaden their range of skills. Breadth is often sacrificed when schools are judged first and foremost by the results they achieve in SATs. If educationalists (and maybe politicians) were tasked with starting a new country’s education system, would they replicate our current system of SATs at the end of Year 6?
First and foremost in this debate is to question why we assess? The politician would argue the need to monitor national standards. The educationalist would want to find out what the child can and cannot do, highlighting each next step in order to make progress.
The timing of national tests at the end of the primary years clearly indicates that assessment is driven to meet the politicians’ needs. The SATs results that follow a child to their senior school provide a benchmark for further progress, but are rarely used in a formative sense to guide future learning.
‘Education is what is left after you’ve forgotten everything you’ve learned’
Einstein’s regularly quoted observation provides an insight into how our assessment system could change to meet the needs of both the politician and the educationalist.
In France children are assessed in their third year of primary education and in the first year of secondary education. Secondary teachers are required to mark the papers and to draw up a success chart to map each child’s progress.
The benefits of the system are threefold. Firstly, the results can be used by the education boards to evaluate the success of the child’s former school. Secondly, after a summer’s break, the child’s responses to tests are more likely to indicate deep learning rather than a superficial cramming for tests. Thirdly, the senior school feels a greater ownership of the tests as they are conducted by their teachers and the results are then used to inform teaching.
Should we not look again at our assessment system used in primary schools? Whilst internal assessments are important to track children’s progress, removing the SATs at the end of Year 6 would free schools to teach a broad curriculum providing children with the key skills for life. Employers want young people to be confident, personable and articulate. These key skills are not easily measurable, but as Einstein observed, they are the core transferable skills that our next generation need.
With a focus on testing at 11, there is a danger that schools do not provide sufficient opportunities for children to practise these life skills. Until we free our primary children from the shackles of SATs, our next generation of children may be similarly ill served by the education they receive.