Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Making uneasy progress

Walking in barbed wire

SATs could be on their way out but their proposed replacement - single level tests - is not proving to be the panacea many had hoped for, according to feedback from the pilot scheme. Liz Lightfoot reports.

While reform of the national curriculum tests has been on the cards since the DCSF's Making Good Progress consultation in January 2007, this summer's SATs fiasco gave ministers an extra incentive to overhaul Key Stage 3 and 4 exams.

However, since the government pledged to rethink assessment at 11 and 14 and in the same breath gave assurances that league tables were here to stay, it has looked remarkably like a Hobson's choice for the profession.

Around 450 schools, 77 of them middle or secondary, have been trying out the planned changes to assessment over the last year as part of the Making Good Progress pilot.

With the trial at its halfway point the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is now studying the results of the first year as schools embark on the second. At the end of the summer term, ASCL also sought feedback from members who had participated in the pilot.

Announcing the Making Good Progress trials in June 2007, three weeks before he left for the Department of Health, education secretary Alan Johnson likened the new regime to graded music tests.

Children would sit single level tests 'on demand' when they were ready for them instead of waiting until the end of each key stage; there would be money for one-to-one tuition, a trial of a new assessment measure - Assessing Pupil Progress; and new targets for children moving two levels in each key stage with proposed 'progress' bonuses for schools that met them.

"We think that good tracking by teachers, confirmed by shorter, more frequent tests, will help schools to personalise each child's learning," he said.

Guinea pigs

The proposal was welcomed, cautiously, by those including ASCL who sensed a weakening of the Government's testing regime. ASCL, however, issued this warning: "The clear statement of assessment for learning and endorsement of it is welcome. However, it should be remembered that high-stakes, externally marked tests are antipathetic to assessment for learning."

ASCL has since voiced concerns to the government about the single level tests, pointing out that they could do even more to narrow the curriculum and encourage teaching to the test.

And 15 months on, what do the secondary schools in the pilot have to say about the tests? As so often in education policy, the reality has not lived up to much of the rhetoric.

"Our experience was overwhelmingly negative," says Alan Hardie, the deputy headteacher of Whitburn C of E School in South Tyneside.

"We feel very strongly that the tests being at a single level disadvantages pupils. All other tests they face are on an incline of difficulty, allowing them to build up confidence on the easier questions before tackling the more difficult ones. In single level tests there is far less scope for this."

Other schools were more optimistic, saying single levels on demand are better than the present 'big bang' system and hoping they can mould the changes to feed into the new emphasis on personalised learning and curriculum innovation.

One thing on which everyone agrees is that the first tests last December were not a success.

"We learned very little from the first round, due to the excessive security surrounding the examination papers. We were not allowed to keep a copy or even photocopy any of the test papers. No mark scheme was issued and the papers were not returned for scrutiny," says Alan.

Welcome flexibility

Christine Wright, the head of St Wilfrid's RC College in South Shields agrees that children were put off by questions on too steep a curve in the December round which she describes as "a disaster" but says the June series went better.

"Pupils came out more confident that they understood what the questions were asking but no results have been received and we are told they won't be available until October," she says.

The problem with single level tests, says Christine, is that they can destroy a child's confidence because if they fail to reach that level, they come out with nothing. Though she welcomes the flexibility to put children in for tests when the teachers think they are ready, they should cover more than one level, as at present, she says.

"Administratively the single level tests were a nightmare according to our very efficient examinations officer," she adds. "The pilot is failing to make use of the sophisticated and efficient IT systems in schools."

Managing a system of children of the same age taking tests at different levels at different times has been "a bit of a nightmare," says Andrew Rannard, the assistant head of Notre Dame Catholic School in Liverpool, another secondary pilot school.

"It's problematic and difficult to timetable but I would rather ask the question and find out whether we can do it than not pose the question in the first place," he says.

Can single level testing help children progress?

"It depends on how schools approach it. Some schools could be quite cynical and keep entering students for level tests until they pass but we have taken the view that we will rely on the professionalism of the teachers and enter pupils only when the teachers say they are comfortably at a level," says Andrew. "We regard it as a confirmation of what the teachers say a child can do.

"The good news is that it gives us a choice of looking at each student and thinking 'is she prepared to take the test now or should we hold back?' Unfortunately it is not really on demand because pupils still have to sit them on the same date but two dates are better than one. My impression is that the DCSF is looking to increase it to termly."

If single level testing works it could feed into other changes in the curriculum, opening up possibilities for making judgements on individuals which lead to them being able to start work on GCSE early and to vertical groupings based on progress rather than age and year, he says.

Cotswold School in Gloucestershire would also like to see testing 'on demand' mean what it says, with teachers able to access the tests throughout the year.

"The idea of testing when ready has the potential to be more flexible," says Richard Thompson, deputy head of the school, which is taking part in the pilot. "We are quite positive about what it could do but there is work to be done on the practicalities."

National sampling

The ASCL survey of participating schools found support for when ready entry and relief that more than one date addressed the problem of pupil absence on test days. Some schools liked the way single levels could be used to fast track to GCSE; others said they didn't need national tests to help them decide which ones to accelerate.

One school liked the way the tests provided focus in year 8 and another said it was helpful that children in primary and secondary schools could sit the same papers. But some pronounced single levels worse than the present system and urged a move to national sampling. If the government wants to help teachers assess pupil progress, National Curriculum tests, multi or single level, are the wrong way of going about it, says John Fairhurst, the head of Shenfield High School and the chair of ASCL's Education Committee.

"Testing in this way is not an exact science. It's an abuse of the instrument to attempt to use a broad brush to paint a fine picture," he says.

Modern technology could be used to provide a bank of tests on functional skills which could form part of a portfolio of evidence of a child's level and progress overseen by chartered assessors, he says.

Secretary of State Ed Balls appears to be committed to single level testing but conceded to The Times in August that though testing at 11 and 14 must contain an element of external validation, it might take the form of internal marking, validated externally. "Nothing is being ruled out or in," he said.

With confidence in SATs at an all-time low, pressure is on the government to quickly to find an alternative. However, if single level tests are introduced before they have been properly tested and refined, schools could find that the assessment regime get worse before it improves.

Liz Lightfoot is a freelance education writer.

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