The UK government is reportedly considering bringing the National Curriculum tests (known as Sats) back to 14-year-olds in England. The reasons given were that without a formal assessment to mark the end of Key Stage 3 (KS3 – high school years seven, eight and nine), children risked losing focus and losing out.
The KS3 Sats were abolished in 2008. These tests were first introduced in 1988 and were used in all subjects of the national curriculum, including English, mathematics, science, history, geography, modern foreign languages, design and technology, and art and design.
Although many teachers rejoiced that they were made redundant because it apparently reduced their workload, research suggests that disadvantaged students – especially those from ethnic minorities and disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds – could be the losers in the process. the framework of the current teacher appraisal regime. Since then, various education actors – including the former Chief Inspector of Schools, Michael Wilshaw – have called for some form of external assessment to be resumed in the ninth grade.
England is not an outlier in terms of the number of tests students face compared to other countries – or in the importance given to these tests. There may be less testing in Sweden, for example. But research shows that early testing in Germany, Italy, Austria, the Czech Republic and many other countries can determine a child’s future in a way that doesn’t happen in England (except in a small number of high schools).
So, is bringing back the KS3 Sats a good idea?
Why testing was abolished
When the Labor government removed them in October 2008, it was seen as a landmark decision. Education secretary at the time, Ed Balls, said the tests were pointless. Other reasons cited for the change included reduced assessment workload for teachers, the idea that testing distorted the nature of education, and the anxiety that students experienced when testing.
But these reasons do not really stand up to scrutiny. SATs were replaced by teacher assessments, which meant modifying – but not reducing – the hours teachers had to devote to assessing their students’ progress. Many schools still use the KS3 tests and exams for their own purposes anyway, even though they are not a legal requirement. Schools use such assessments to inform students, teachers, and parents about progress, identify areas of support that school leaders can address, and provide a measure of school performance to principals and others.
And while milestone tests were abolished because they distorted the so-called true nature of education, it is not clear why similar tests for students in milestones one, two and four were kept. There was no reason to suggest that ‘teaching to the test’ was somehow less of a problem for students aged seven, 11 or 16 than it was at 14.
Beyond that, in terms of anxiety, well-being, and happiness, the evidence suggests that exams (even under age 14) do not pose major problems for children.
Other reasons for abolishing KS3 testing have been suggested. But perhaps the most important factor was the collapse of the American testing company ETS in 2008, which resulted in many tests going unmarked and student response boxes remaining in place. Perhaps abolition was a political response to the perceived chaos in schools, and was not really related to improving education.
Does bringing them back make sense?
So, do we have to start KS3 Sats all over again (even if they never completely disappeared)? It would certainly be more convenient for researchers like us looking at student progress and how to improve it. Currently, we have access to data on evaluations at 7 and 11 years and then a long gap up to 16 years. However, this is not a reason likely to influence politicians, teachers or the general public.
A good reason for a return to testing would be if the teacher assessments currently in use were somehow inaccurate or unfair. It is not entirely clear.
Research suggests that teacher assessment is as stable and reliable as formal testing. However, there is also substantial evidence from the Bureau of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (the UK government’s exam watchdog) and others that disadvantaged students may lose to their peers in teacher assessment. This applies in particular to pupils from certain ethnic minorities and from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds.
This issue of potentially losing children in teacher assessment is important because the results of KS3 can be part of the step to access the choice of subjects and qualifications at KS4. If there are unconscious biases in the assessment, then this can skew all of the students’ future trajectories.
Despite the discontinuation of the KS3 Sats in 2008, the heavy workload continues to be cited
as an obstacle to keeping teachers in the labor market. Many schools are using increasingly sophisticated digital tools and standardized, self-correcting digital tests. Such approaches could be useful in minimizing workloads in the event that the KS3 Sats (or something similar) are reinstated.
The the whole evaluation process has, of course, been affected by the pandemic. Two years of key national test results, up to and including Level A, have been lost. Maybe now is the time to deal with these issues and not add more testing – at least for now.
Whatever it chooses to do, the education ministry should plan a solid evaluation of any proposed change to KS3, with a policy guided by evidence of its benefits and a solid plan on how to implement it.
Stephen Gorard, Professor of Education and Public Policy, University of Durham and Nadia Siddiqui, Research Fellow, School of Education, University of Durham