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Survey reveals that 90% of secondary schools find Key Stage 2 Sats results do not reflect pupils’ true abilities

On the day the Key Stage 2 Sats results are released, a new report from independent think-tank Civitas, Fast Track to Slow Progress, based on a nationwide survey of 107 secondary schools, reveals that 9 out of 10 secondary school teachers cannot rely on them:

  • 90% of secondary school teachers surveyed have found the Key Stage 2 Sats results to be inconsistent with pupils’ true abilities, this last school year
  • 79% of secondary school teachers have found that up to a third of their Year 7 year-group’s abilities have been lower than their Key Stage 2 Sats results, this last school year

The culprit: teaching to the test or ‘coaching’

Teaching to the test or ‘coaching’ is seen to be the number one reason for inflated Key Stage 2 results:

  • 77% out of those teachers who feel that Key Stage 2 results have been sometimes or often higher than pupils’ actual abilities consider the main or second most important cause to be teaching to the test, or ‘coaching’, for the Sats.

‘Increasingly rarely primaries don’t coach pupils for the Key Stage 2 Sats.’

Secondary head of maths, North East

A major repercussion for secondary teachers of this artificial inflation is that it appears that they have made little or no progress with their pupils – or worst, that pupils have gone backwards. In reality, many of these pupils were never at their stated level. With ‘value added’ a central measure of school quality, secondary teachers frequently find inflated Key Stage 2 results put them under huge pressure to catch-up:

‘There is a lot of pressure to catch up in order to make up the two new levels of progress required. The progress which needs to be made puts us under an awful lot of pressure.’

Secondary head of English, Yorkshire and Humberside

One remedial measure increasingly adopted by secondary schools is to do their own testing. Directly related to misleading primary Sats results, nearly two-thirds of the secondary schools surveyed (62%) tested pupils on entry into secondary school this last academic year.

‘We do baseline testing so that we can show what we have done with them – by using the Key Stage 2 results it would look like we hadn’t made any progress.’

Secondary head of science, South East

Secondary school scepticism: part of a wholesale questioning of government-testing

‘The Key Stage 2 Sats have become little more than “vanity testing”: “proof” for the government of rising standards in primary schools which the consumers of these results – secondary schools – aren’t buying,’ commented Anastasia de Waal, Head of Family and Education and author of the report.

The purpose of testing in state schools has come to be more about ‘proving’ that standards are rising – irrespective of whether they actually are – than genuinely gauging standards. As a result, independent testing is being resorted to as an antidote to distortions now rife in government testing. Universities are increasingly carrying out their own testing because of flaws in the exam process, as are employers on school leavers.

Now secondary schools are following suit, resorting to their own independent testing.

The damaging impact of teaching to the test in primary schools

  • Vast sums spent on Key Stage 2 testing wasted as secondary schools cannot use the results
  • Significant gaps left in coached pupils’ learning

Teaching to the test has become such a widespread phenomenon because of government pressure to boost test and exam results at whatever cost. Up and down the country primary school teachers are finding themselves compelled to teach to the test both through official guidance and through pressure to do what they can in the short-term to gain higher Sats scores. [p19]

The result is that the mechanism for testing teacher and school effectiveness has come to actually undermine educational effectiveness. Over the last decade higher test scores in primary schools have all too often represented less learning and worse educated pupils.

Test learning, not test preparation

The solution is not scrapping primary testing, however. Discussion around the issues which primary school testing in this country currently faces often leads to the conclusion that the root of the problem is testing per se. The evidence on what has gone wrong in testing strongly suggests that this is an erroneous position. Testing itself is not the problem. Testing can be stimulating for pupils and useful in terms of measuring how effective teaching and school policies are; if testing is used effectively, it can indeed be a valuable accountability tool, with no detriment to even comparatively young pupils.

The underlying problem is that testing has become the end rather than the means in driving up school standards thereby warping its potential to ensure accountability. [p18]

The solution is testing which gauges a truly randomised snapshot of learning, rather than the testing happening today, whereby the sum of learning, all to often, becomes that snapshot. To do so schools should not be forewarned on either details of the test content, or the timing. Annual unseen testing at any point in upper primary school (between Years 3 and 6) would provide a more accurate picture of learning levels and progress in a school.[p19]

Notes to editors:

  • 107 secondary school teachers who taught in Year 7 in maintained schools in England this last school year were surveyed using a telephone questionnaire, between 8th and 24th July 2008
  • The views of 47 maths teachers, 32 English teachers and 28 science teachers were obtained
  • Responses cover the following regions: North East – 2, Yorkshire and Humberside – 8, North West – 5, East Midlands – 3, West Midlands – 4, East of England – 4, London – 16, South West – 12, South East – 5
  • The full report can be read below.
Civitas is an independent social policy think-tank. It receives no state funding either directly or indirectly and has no links to any political party. Civitas’s education research seeks to take an objective view of educational standards in Britain. It aims to offer an improved perspective on how best to deliver equitable and high standards of education for all.

For more information ring:

Anastasia de Waal, Head of Family and Education / 020 7799 6677

Fast Track to Slow Progress

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