If the Conservatives form the next government, Nicky Morgan proposes to make 11-year-olds who don’t reach the expected standard in the Key Stage 2 SATs re-sit the tests in Year 7 in a bid for 100% success. The Conservative manifesto pledge says 100,000 students would be affected.
This ignores the age-old adage that measuring the goose doesn’t fatten it. While no one would wish to argue with the Tory leadership’s wish for every child to get ‘the best start in life’, simply following a regime of test and re-test offers no guarantee of increased attainment. In fact it may turn out to be harmful to young students already under pressure from having spent the last year endlessly preparing for and subsequently sitting these end of key stage assessments.
In 2014 21% of Year 6 students didn’t meet the expected standard in reading, writing and mathematics; we might conclude that these are the students for whom retesting is applicable. Given that government data also suggest that 21% of Year 6 students are identified as SEN and they are generally exempt from the proposed re-sits, who is left to re-take the tests – unless the government is only referring here to students with Statements of Special Educational Need (3.2% in Year 6 in 2014)? This is baffling!
Ms Morgan is right however that young people who do not reach at least Level 4 have trouble succeeding later in school. But it’s difficult to locate in the government’s proposal for retesting, any indication of advice or discussion about how to improve literacy learning for students who, for whatever reason, require help to ‘catch-up’ when they move up to secondary school.
When an athlete sets a goal of becoming an Olympic champion she engages a coach and gets involved in an effective training programme in order to stand a chance of a podium position. Similarly, students need excellent quality teaching and interventions that have been shown by robust research evidence to succeed in accelerating learning.
Helping older struggling readers and writers to catch up is challenging. It’s highly unlikely that any single approach is sufficient to narrow the gap. A simplistic view of education through testing alone ignores the multiple causes of literacy difficulty, with each student demonstrating an individual profile of strengths and weaknesses and errors habituated over time. Rather than continuous testing, teachers need to spend time teaching.
This highlights the importance of two aspects.
First, how are teachers being prepared to teach students who have dropped behind?
We should never underestimate the impact of teacher quality on students’ learning, as Dylan Wiliam has shown. All teachers, even those already highly skilled, require regular continual professional development (CPD) to enhance their classroom practice, to afford deeper understandings of the curriculum and to be engaged as critical thinkers. Arguably, those involved with teaching struggling learners need this more. In short, teachers require CPD that offers ‘a warrant for thoughtfulness’ and empowers them to make informed decisions on the run during teaching.
Secondly, are the interventions used in schools ‘fit for purpose’?
The use of research evidence is essential to identify the most promising approaches to learners whose needs may be different from mainstream students. Combined with regular evaluation of impact in local contexts, teachers should ask – ‘Is it doing what it says on the tin?’ Teachers expending time, effort and expertise must have the assurance that the pedagogy endorsed and systematically applied can ‘make a difference’.
Our research with schools prior to designing professional development for a Year 7 literacy intervention showed us that while schools were wholehearted in their desire to improve their students’ basic skills and had received the Government’s Catch Up Premium, they were often unsure about the very best ways of spending it. Whilst SEN students are often well-supported, the students in the group that would be targeted for re-testing are often the responsibility of English teachers who reported that despite their specialist knowledge of literature, they were less sure about how to address the literacy needs and difficulties of students who were working just at or below National Curriculum Level 4. Thus additional professional learning could be a better investment than test materials.
We now know much more about what works well for Year 7 students. It’s a good time to start again with the slate clean. Many students will make accelerated progress if additional support involves:
- one to one or very small group settings
- frequent teaching sessions – if possible daily
- contingent feedback from observant teachers who know how to teach at the ‘cutting edge’ of students’ learning, so they can move onto the next step
- eliciting prior knowledge through prompting, and praising to reinforce specific learning and to motivate
- strategies to develop meta-cognition (thinking about thinking) and involve students in goal.
Such interventions are available, and they demonstrate what is possible for students who are still struggling with literacy in KS3. Let’s put aside relentless testing and restore teaching as the prime focus for teachers!
 Catch-up premium – currently worth £500 per Year 7 pupil who did not achieve at least level 4 in reading and/or maths at the end of KS2.