“The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making,
the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” Donald T. Campbell, 1976
If you were after a single sentence description of the effect that high stakes testing has on schools, you couldn’t really do better than Campbell’s Law. When decisions about how well a school is doing come down to the results of a set of tests, those tests can start to distort the process of education. If your livelihood depends on children doing well in the tests, then you can’t really ignore them, unless you are supremely confident that your children are going to do well. If something is in the tests, you’d be daft not to teach it. How well your children do at the tests depends on your school’s context, as well as on your teaching skills, and even a single context can vary widely with different cohorts over the years. From what I can tell, the vast majority of schools are doing the best that they possibly can in the circumstances for their children. But at the same time it would be hard to deny that the curriculum has narrowed for many children. That no matter how hard people might try, schools are influenced by thoughts of SATs, as well as what is best for the child.
One of the most telling things for me about SATs is that private schools don’t use them*. You can be sure that they would, if they were a good thing for the children or the teachers, or if parents really ‘wanted’ them. When I see the Government eulogising private education, I wonder why they cherry pick the bits of it that they like. Even the DfE fully admits that SATs are not about children, but about schools. It’s not like GCSEs, where there is a clear outcome for my child as well. If I feel that these tests are potentially doing damage to the state education system, and to the teachers who work within it, I can’t just sit back and say nothing. If people tell me that their children find the testing stressful, then I have to take that seriously. Even if my child is doing fine, because of her context, her school, and her confidence as a learner, it doesn’t make it okay when someone else’s isn’t.
I’m told by secondary teachers that target grades are set on the results of SATs. Even if they teach Art or Music, that number that gets attached to my child and will end up distorting the system, rippling out into her secondary career. Not only does someone’s livelihood depend on my child now, but someone’s pay rise five years later might depend on how she performed in a warm classroom on a May day in 2017. That seems like an awful lot of trust in a measurement, to place on a single child. When you put a target grade on a child, then you inadvertently put up a barrier between primary and secondary. The higher the SATs mark, the harder it is for the secondary to move the child on. And so, instead of being the gentle handover of a child, it starts to feel like passing on a ticking bomb.
We have a lot of Cleavers in our garden. The children love to play with it. It’s that sticky weed; the one that if someone throws it on your back, it sticks like it’s made of velcro. You can chuck it at someone when they’re not watching and they won’t even realise it’s there. Sometimes there is so much Cleavers in the garden that the kids get into a massive sticky weed fight with it. There comes a point when you have to shout, “STOP!”, or someone is going to get really upset. And that is basically the point I have reached when it comes to the way that testing is going in schools. Because the biggest problem with Cleavers isn’t that it is sticky; the problem is that its stickiness is how it propagates itself. And I’m starting to think that it’s just about time that we stopped spreading the seeds.
(* I’m told by those that know, that some private schools do use SATs. However, this is the school’s choice and not a statutory requirement for accountability. This article is a useful read on the opinion of most private schools on the subject of SATs.)