Stop judging primary schools on one year’s SATs results, say MPs

Primary school performance should be judged based on a rolling three-year average of key stage 2 SATs results, rather than annual data, according to parliament’s influential education committee.

In one of its last reports, the outgoing committee of cross-party MPs argues the close link between SATs outcomes and school accountability creates a high-stakes system that negatively impacts pupils’ learning.

The committee wants the government to change the data reported in the annual performance tables to help avoid a narrowing of the curriculum and ‘teaching to the test’.

The inquiry into primary testing was launched last year following a chaotic year in which parents and teachers complained about new, harder tests, and the government faced questions over blunders such as the leaking of the key stage 1 spelling and grammar test.

Now the committee is calling for performance data changes, and wants Ofsted to ensure it looks across the whole curriculum when visiting primary schools, rather than focusing on key stage 2 results in core subjects.

Neil Carmichael, the committee’s chair, says many of the negative effects of assessment in primary schools are caused by the “use of results in the accountability system rather than the assessment system itself”.

Critics of the current accountability system warn that schools are judged too heavily on their key stage 2 results. A poor showing can put a school at risk of being labelled as ‘coasting’, potentially forcing them to become academies or be re-brokered to a different sponsor.

The high-stakes system has led to a “narrowing of the curriculum with a focus on English and maths at the expense of other subjects like science, humanities and the arts”, Carmichael adds.

Neil Carmichael

The inquiry follows an announcement that ministers are considering scrapping key stage 1 SATs in favour of a new baseline test for reception pupils. The government is also considering changing the way pupils are assessed on their writing at key stage 2, from a ‘secure fit’ system to a more flexible ‘best fit’ approach, a move which the education committee welcomes.

The proposed changes have been welcomed by teaching unions, but many school leaders believe they do not adequately address problems with key stage 2 tests, which last year caused stress and anxiety among pupils and prompted a boycott in several regions.

Primary testing has been one of the key issues discussed at the National Association of Head Teachers annual conference this weekend, and Russell Hobby, the union’s general secretary, has today welcomed the education committee’s report, along with its recommendation to switch to a rolling three year average.

“Last year’s SATs were a mess of chaos and confusion. Add into this the high stakes nature of the system for school leaders, and you get a toxic mix.

“We have consistently argued against schools being held to account for raw data alone, and this was something I raised with the committee when giving evidence earlier in the year. Data is useful, but it is important to recognise its limitations.”

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