The UK government is reportedly considering bringing back the National Curriculum Test (known as the SAT) for 14-year-olds in England. The reasons cited were that, without a formal assessment to mark the end of main stage three (KS3 – Years Seven, Eight and Nine Secondary School), children were at risk of being focused and lost.
KS3 Sats were phased out in 2008. These tests were first introduced in 1988 and were used in all national curriculum subjects, including English, mathematics, science, history, geography, modern foreign languages, design and technology, and art and design.
Although many teachers were happy When they were laid off because it reduced their workload, research shows that disadvantaged students – especially from ethnic minorities and lower socio-economic backgrounds – are losing out under the current teacher assessment system. Various education stakeholders – including the former chief inspector of schools, Michael Wilshaw – have called for some form of external assessment in year nine for the restart.
England is no outsider compared to other countries in terms of the amount of testing students face – or in terms of the importance placed on these tests. For example, Sweden may have fewer tests. But research shows that early tests in Germany, Italy, Austria, the Czech Republic and many other countries can determine a child’s future in a way that does not happen in England (except in a small number of grammar schools). .
So is it a good idea to bring back the KS3 Sats?
Why were the tests terminated
When the Labor government abolished him in October 2008, it was considered a historic move. The then Secretary of Education, Ed Balls, claimed that the tests served no real purpose. Additional reasons given for the change included lower assessment workloads for teachers, the idea that tests distorted the nature of learning, and test anxiety experienced by students.
But these reasons don’t really come under scrutiny. Satsang was replaced by teacher evaluation, which meant changing – but not reducing – the hours it took teachers to assess their students’ progress. Many schools still use KS3 tests and exams for their own purposes, even though they are not a statutory requirement. Schools use such assessments to inform students, teachers and parents about progress, identify areas of support in which school leaders can participate, and report school performance to governors and others. Can provide a measurement.
And if key-stage testing was abolished because it distorted the so-called true nature of learning, it is not clear why the same testing of pupils in key stages one, two and four was retained. There was no reason to suggest that “teaching to the test” was somehow less problematic for students aged seven, 11, or 16 than for students aged 14.
Furthermore, in terms of anxiety, well-being, and happiness, evidence suggests that taking exams (even under the age of 14) is not a major problem for children.
Further reasons for ending KS3 trials have been suggested. But perhaps the biggest factor was the collapse of US-based testing firm ETS in 2008, which left many tests unmarked and boxes of student responses just sitting around. Perhaps the abolition was a political response to the perceived anarchy in the schools, and was not really related to educational reform.
Does it make sense to bring them back?
So, should KS3 Sats be restarted (even if they don’t completely disappear)? It will certainly be more convenient for researchers like us who see the progress of the students and how to improve it. We currently have access to data on assessments at age seven and 11 and then a longer interval until age 16. However, this is not a reason to impress politicians, teachers or the general public.
A solid reason for a return to the test would be that the teacher assessments currently in use were incorrect or unfair in some way. It is not completely clear.
Research shows that teacher evaluation is just as stable and reliable as formal testing. However, there is also ample evidence from the Office of Eligibility and Examination Regulation (the UK government’s examination watchdog) and others that disadvantaged students may lose out to their peers in teacher evaluations. This especially applies to students from certain ethnic minorities and from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
This issue of children potentially losing out on teacher evaluations is important as KS3 results can be part of the phase of accessing subject and aptitude options in KS4. If there is some unconscious bias in the assessment, it can bias the overall future trajectory of the students.
Despite the abolition of KS3 Sats in 2008, heavy workload is being cited as a hindrance to keep teachers in the workforce. Many schools are using increasingly sophisticated digital tools and digital standardized and self-marking tests. Such an approach can be helpful in reducing the workload in case KS3 Sats (or something similar) are being restored.
The entire evaluation process has, of course, been hit by the pandemic. The results of the two-year national major phase trial, up to and including A-levels, have been lost. Perhaps now is the time to tackle those problems, and not add another test – at least for now.
Whatever it wants to do, the Department of Education should plan a robust evaluation of any proposed changes to KS3, an evidence-led policy of its benefits and with a concrete plan for how to implement it.