How have my experiences of Year 2 SAT's influenced my perceptions of assessment in teaching and learning?
Amy Skuse, MA Educational Enquiry Unit, University of Bath, October, 2007.
This essay is based upon my personal experiences as a teacher within Year 2 and the subsequent research undertook as a result of this experience. I found the year very stressful in terms of the underlying pressure that existed from the knowledge of the judgement my pupils would receive at the end of the year in terms of teaching and learning. I was also conscious that the children felt some anxiety and this therefore sparked an enquiry into assessment in school, reasons for national testing in the UK and the affect that this has upon children and teachers in the primary classroom. This essay will define assessment and outline its purpose within school. It will then examine how assessment has evolved in the UK and explore why current changes and debates maybe happening. I have drawn on both my personal perceptions and pupils experiences as well as further research and I will conclude with my opinion on how we can move forward in the area of assessment within schools.
What is assessment?
My personal definition of 'useful assessment' is knowing where a child is currently in their learning, and the next step to progress their learning. However, this opinion has changed since my first impressions earlier on in my teaching career. I had always believed that I had a good understanding of assessment and how to use it within the classroom. I felt that I used assessment well in order to inform my teaching and for summative, levelling purposes but, since undertaking this investigation, I have realised that my understanding and application of assessment was not as meaningful as it could be and it had not been used it to its full potential. I was also unaware of the vast debates surrounding this topic and the high volume of media attention linked to it. Although my personal experiences of SAT's were mainly negative, I did gain some positive actions to bring into the classroom. My experiences, both positive and negative, made me consider ways to maximise assessment and use it to better the children's learning opportunities.
During my research I have developed several arguments both for and against summative assessment and have a better understanding of how formative assessment may be more useful within a school. In order to try and unlock the true meaning and purpose of assessment within the primary classroom, I researched and formulated a meaning for the term assessment from the varying definitions that I had come across.
Lambert and Lines (2000) define assessment as'the process of gathering, interpreting, recording and using information about pupil's responses to educational tasks.' (Lambert & Lines 2000:p4)
For me, there were two significant points to this definition, the first being the part where 'using information' is mentioned and the second being the 'responses to educational tasks'. After having supported my class through SAT's I fail to see where these tests meet these two important criteria set out in this definition. I would argue that the information gathered through these tests is not used effectively as they are a measure of one school against another. SAT's are simply used for summative purposes and it therefore it could be argued that they have no true educational value. In addition to this I struggle to see how an exam, which is only used on the day of testing, falls into the category of an educational task. It is not something that my children would normally do and I find it hard to classify a SAT's test as an educational task, after all, the only thing it appears to educate the children about is how to sit a test.
Gipps (2002) however, gives a much broader, but far less rigid description of what assessment is about.
'assessment is a wide range of methods for evaluating pupil performance and attainment, including formal testing and examinations, practical and oral assessment, classroom based assessment carried out by teachers and portfolio's.' (Gipps:2002:p.vii)
The above definition is one which I felt encompassed all aspects of assessment. It appeared to be holistic in that a range of assessment methods could be used and that not one was advocated as more valid or reliable than another. On reflection, many of the frustrations that arose from my experiences of the Key Stage 1 SAT's came from the fact that a test was often seen as the best way to sum up a child's achievement. There was little scope for consideration of a child development during the Foundation Stage
(e.g. an improvement in social interaction or speech). This is something that is often experienced at the school in which I work and is an achievement that clearly wouldn't show up on a Literacy comprehension paper or a maths SAT test. These particular children would therefore be seen as low-attainers and this clear cut nature harboured more frustrations. To me and other professionals within the school, those children experience huge success and have made great leaps in achieving success yet receive little recognition for it.
It might be said that in some ways, this lack of recognition could be due to the fact that SAT's measure 'attainment' against a national average rather than measuring the 'achievement' of an individual child. These differ in the fact that attainment measures a child in relation to nationally recognised levels, without consideration for the child's development throughout the year, however, achievement does measures a child's progress from an initial baseline of at the start of their education. As teachers, we are keen to gain recognition for all progress that children make and as long as they are doing this, it is irrelevant as to whether they meet the national standards, whereas government officials are keen to judge where children are in comparison to other children and indeed in relation to other countries nationally.
In some ways it could be argued that replacing Year 2 SAT's with a teacher assessment, which would over-rule a test result, would bring together all aspects of assessment under one heading. However, I still remain perplexed by the retaining of the compulsory examination element when it is often inaccessible to so many children and has no educational value. As this essay goes onto highlight, the move towards 'teacher assessment' brings with it further debate and does not turn out to be as favourable as it initially sounds. These frustrations turned my attention to the discovery of how formal assessment procedures came about and how they have developed in the UK over recent years.
What types of assessment have evolved in the UK?
Assessment appears to be the topic on every primary school's agenda at this moment in time and my complete Year 2 experience centred on this. The word assessment has also featured regularly in national newspapers and remains high on the government's agenda, but why is it such an issue in education?
Wragg (2001) comments on the fact that 'assessment has taken on such importance in schools since the last few years of the twentieth century' (Wragg:2001:p1) and believes that this is simply due to the fact that we live in a society with an immense degree of accountability and need to be responsible for your actions. Due to our attempts to be accountable as teachers and society's need for us to prove the impact we are having on our pupils we teach, several assessment methods have evolved. Historically, assessment has always existed, as Black and Wiliam (2006) clearly point out 'formative assessment has always been part of the practise of teachers, but never before had teachers had to justify what 'value for money' they were providing.' (cited in Gardner:2006:p9) In relation to this and my previous argument in relation to attainment and achievement, I would propose that teacher's performance is not adequately judged. If the rate of progress is not taken into account, how can value for money possibly be calculated? There are a whole group of children who are not being accounted for and this has an adverse affect of the judgements made of teachers that is quite simply not just or accurate.
Madaus (1992) on the other hand argued that there were three ways to judge performance in terms of assessment, a supply a product, candidates ability to perform an act and the selection of an answer from several options. (cited in Broadfoot:2007:p5) Arguably, the later is what I believe we are advocating in terms of national SAT's testing. Much of what the children demonstrate can be put down to chance and how well a child performs on a day. It could be argued that this is not valid in being able to be a summative account of their current level of achievement. It is impossible to see how three whole years of learning can theoretically be summed up using one set of tests when a child reaches seven years of age. The introduction of teacher assessment may have been emphasised in order to overcome this problem however, as a teacher I felt under immense pressure to provide results that were not too far astray from those of the test results. At the SAT's training we were constantly told that if our teacher assessment was accurate, then the test results would match our own teacher assessments. In theory this works however, as teachers are we really expected to be totally accurate, are children no longer allowed to surprise us? Throughout all of this, I still struggle to see how attainment can be summarised into a neat square box and would argue strongly that the current assessment procedures in place in UK primary schools do not give a true picture of the attainment of the nations children and most certainly do not show any form of progression or 'value-added' results. At this moment in time, I do not believe that 'achievement' is recognised and we are currently failing to give recognition to the progress of many children. Several types of assessment exist and all should be used with equal balance to make a well rounded judgement of an individual child.
Issues relating to summative assessment
Recently there have been a number of claims in national papers and television media that children are being 'over-tested' and we are turning into a nation full of 'exam factories' (http://new.sky.com/skynews/article/0,,91211-1282479,00.html). Furthermore, the level of pressure was putting their health at risk. Unsurprisingly, government officials have denied these claims and state that children in the UK are not subject to over-testing. Nevertheless, for me as a teacher the argument lies not within the mere fact of whether children are being over-tested or not but more so in the concerns of what tests are doing to our children and how they are affecting teaching and learning in the classroom.
Research undertaken by the EPPI centre (Harlen:2004) states that 'there is a common sense assumption that summative assessment, in the form of tests and examinations, is a key source of motivation for learning.' (http://eppi.ioe.ac.uk/cms/default.aspx?tabid=103) However, from personal experience, I would argue to the contrary. In the lead up to SAT's, I experienced several external pressures upon me to encourage children to do well and parents were commenting upon how worried and anxious children were becoming, I fail to see how this constitutes as motivation for learning and would therefore argue that testing actually has the opposite effect, de-motivating, rather than motivating learners.
In a systematic review of the impact of summative assessment and tests on student's motivation for learning, findings indicated that there are in fact several negative impacts of summative assessment on motivation for learning (Harlen:2004). This is supported furthermore by the paper 'Testing, motivation and learning' produced by the Assessment Reform Group (ARG:2002) In this study it was found that 'one impact of the tests was the reduction in self-esteem of those pupils who did not achieve well.' (ARG:2002:p4) , something which I have witnessed first hand in my classroom. Tests such as those of SAT's and such like simply highlight low achievement to pupils and decrease motivation in the classroom, hence widening the gap between the more and less able. Although I am in agreement with most elements of the research and its indications I find it hard to see how the suggestions for teachers in the classroom can realistically be put into practice. The findings made suggestions of increased activities in the classroom, as well as ones which should be decreased, which included the advice that teachers should not, 'define the curriculum in terms of what is in the tests to the detriment of what is not tested', nor 'give frequent drill and practise for test taking' or 'teach how to answer specific test questions'. Although this advice is ideal on paper, having taught year 2 and undertaking the process I know that this is impossible to do. My values and beliefs about teaching do not include practising for tests or teaching specific questions but I feel that I had no choice but to do this. In order to prepare children well for the test, it is necessary to identify what they do not yet know and teach this in the weeks leading up to the test. If I had not done this in my classroom I would have felt a strong sense of guilt in that I would not have prepared my children effectively and also that I would have been putting them at a disadvantage in comparison with children at other schools. I had to balance the feeling of guilt against my true values as a teacher and as a result, this is where many of my frustrations arose.
My mind is now cast back to a SAT's meeting I attended in the lead up to the tests. Teachers from local schools attended and everyone were eager to talk to each other about how much preparation they had done with their children thus far. The group leader had stated that the only time you could not teach anything related to the SAT's was in the week leading up to them, hence advocating that you should otherwise do this. This goes totally against suggestions made by the Assessment Reform Group and as a teacher I felt that I was juggling between the advice that was being given from the local authority and that which I knew was proven in research. I constantly felt that I might be doing the wrong thing and had to go with my gut reaction of what I felt was right for the children at the time.
Several articles refer further to this notion as 'teaching to the test'. In an article entitled 'Don't cram, teach' (Mansell&Ward:2007) it is stated that teachers are spending too long preparing children for tests and in practising doing them. Again, as a teacher I can clearly see the reason for this but I believe pressures from the government to raise standards in schools and in relation to league tables leave schools with no choice but to teach children how to succeed under test conditions.
One of the most frustrating experiences that arose from my experience of SAT's is that your thinking and teaching are channelled towards one ultimate result limiting a holistic approach to the education of children. There is no time to incorporate what the children want to learn or to follow their interests. Furthermore my frustrations developed in relation to my values and beliefs. Teaching for a test goes against my own personal values of education and I do not believe that this is what constitutes as good teaching, however, I knew that I had no choice but to do this. I spent most of the year preparing the children and I felt that they missed an awful lot of their education because of this. I was forced to teach against my values and these frustrations were passed on to the children. Media articles have suggested that creativity is being taken out of the curriculum because of exam pressures. For example William Stewart (2007) claimed that 'excessive testing is "squeezing the joy out of education". This idea is supported further with comments made by Julia Neal (2007) who states that creativity in the classroom has been stifled by Whitehall control over the curriculum.' Surely, we therefore need to question the extent to which testing is denying children the right to a broad and wide-ranging curriculum and the effect that this might have on how they view their experience of education.
Arguments against testing – how reliable are they?
My main concern in relation to the SAT's testing is the fact that a test only measures performance on one day of the year and at one moment in time. Children were given one chance at the test and, if for some reason, they did not perform well on that particular day their later chances in education could be drastically affected by this. Tests are used to group children, make judgements on academic ability and most alarmingly, to predict grades that children might and should achieve in the future. With so much debate existing about the validity of SAT's, I feel that we must as educational professionals question what the result actually shows and indeed think very carefully about how we use them to support other elements of education.
Gipps (2002) questions the reliability of national curriculum tests by proposing 'would an assessment produce the same or similar score on two occasions or if given by two assessors?' (Gipps:2002:p67) In relation to the SAT's, if the same test was given again, it is possible that for a majority of children, the same or similar score may well be achieved again but I do not feel that this is necessarily the main issue in relation to the validity of the test results. If teachers are 'teaching to the test' as we have quite clear evidence to state they are, if feel that the issue then lies in the fact of how can this be a true measure of what the children know? Teachers are now able to see the SAT's papers months before the children sit them and are able to teach to this with no restrictions. I would therefore argue that we are simply training the children to sit these, just as you would train a dog to go around an obstacle course. This does not mean however that the children have internalised and understood this knowledge but more so that they are able to reproduce it. No demonstration of acquired skills is required and children are simply being treated as empty vessels into which knowledge is poured and stored for the occasion that they need to regurgitate it. I am unable to understand how this is still accepted as a valid measure of attainment when quite clearly, the results are clouded by this fact.
Broadfoot (2007) blames psychometrics for the culture of testing and the rise of examinations we know today. She understands that formal testing arose from the notion that intellectual ability could actually be measured and that every individual had a fixed and measurable intelligence and that this could be used to make predictions of how successful a child would grow up to be. In turn, this has resulted in a system which 'rapidly became heavily overlaid with an emphasis on competition' (Broadfoot:2007:p21). With this in mind, it might be argued that with developments in educational research, and a far more detailed knowledge of what the word 'intelligence' actually means, it is now time for the system of national testing and assessment through examination to be radically overhauled and bought up to date with developments in knowledge and current thinking around education. I, as would many other educational professionals argue, that the current assessment system in place in the UK no longer suits the delivery of the curriculum we are trying to achieve and nor is it fit for purpose in an ever-changing world.
The case for formative assessment
Much debate has arisen over the past few years from the idea that formative assessment provides a much more valuable system for assessing children's progress than summative assessment. Black and Wiliam (1998) argue that formative assessment is the way forward in their research entitled 'Inside the Black Box'. In this they prove that formative assessment strategies do raise standards of attainment in schools however, they also place importance upon highlighting the difficulties that teachers encounter when trying to put these ideas into practise.
Shirley Clarke has also highlighted how important formative assessment is in school. I am particularly fond of the way that she defines formative assessment 'formative assessment describes processes of teaching and learning, whereas summative assessment takes place after the teaching and learning.' (Clarke:2001:p2) She uses the analogy of a plant to illustrate this further by saying that summative assessment could be its measurement in terms of how tall it is and this alone does not affect its growth whereas formative assessment is the feeding and watering of the plant which directly affects growth. This really helped me to view assessment from both the government's point of view and a teacher's point of view. Obviously, the government are interested in comparing and analysing end results as that is where their interest lies but teachers however are far more interested in the growth of a child and the developments they make. In terms of this, I would argue that a shift needs to be made towards creating a more even balance of the two in school and abolishing the developed 'importance' that tests have been given.
Black and Wiliam support this in their work by stating that most available resources and media attention have been focussed on key stage tests giving them a higher status within society. Teacher assessment is now meant to feed into the end result of these tests but as they point out, this has been given little, if any attention. I experienced this myself where we were constantly told that teacher assessment prevails yet when the question was asked 'does that mean that we don't have to use the tests?' the answer given was that we must still do them and use them with heavy weighting to inform our teacher assessment, personally, I see that as a total contradiction to what they were first advocating.
Assessment for Learning
It might be said that both summative and formative assessment have potential to be bought together under the heading of 'assessment for learning', which is something I would advocate purely as it contains the words 'for learning'. Many of my frustrations from experiencing SAT's were as a result of the assessment having no direct purpose in a child's learning and in it having no value in helping them to progress further. In their book entitled 'Assessment-what's in it for schools?' Weeden, Winter & Broadfoot (2002) argue that assessment can raise standards if it is used to promote learning. Within this they argue that 'the current measurement culture in England and Wales places too much emphasis on assessment as collecting evidence of learning and not enough on using assessment to plan for children's future learning needs'(Weeden, Winter & Broadfoot:2002:p122) As a teacher, I can see the huge potential that assessment for learning has in maximising both attainment and achievement, especially when you consider the fact that this is already built, at some level into current teaching methods.
Nevertheless, it should be acknowledged that 'assessment for learning is the most neglected topic in the whole of the educational world.' (Weeden, Winter & Broadfoot:2002:p122) With this in mind, it is somewhat encouraging to note that as a result of much research, the Assessment Reform Group have created a document entitled 'ten principles for assessment for learning' in which teachers are provided with tips on how to make assessment useful within the classroom. However, this also comes with a health warning in that teachers cannot simply be taught how to do this effectively but need to live it and accept the model within their own values in order for it to be effective. As a teacher, I know how hard it is to do this in such a busy environment. As stated in the book 'Assessment and Learning (Gardner:2006), teachers are often too busy to take on new initiatives for themselves and are frequently, the last to hear about new developments. I believe that this element of assessment is crucial and that teachers would be enlightened to think that they had the potential to develop an effective system of 'assessment for learning' within their school if it was to move children on in their learning. I know that I will be looking at this further and using it more effectively as a result of this research.
Where now? My conclusions
In looking at assessment in this reflective way, I have come to realise that the problems I have experienced with assessment lie in the validity of formative and summative assessment but actually in how we use these assessments and the emphasis that is put upon them within school and society. Of course, as teachers we are always going to favour formative assessment simply because it focuses on the growth of the child but we need to find ways of making summative assessment more useful to us.
There has been much talk regarding the abolishment of SAT's,(which was recently made in Wales (Davies:2004)) however, I don't believe that that it is absolutely necessary. If SAT's are done away with, something will have to take their place in order to satisfy the governments need for statistics, and a end to this form of assessment would demand huge changes in the way society works. Competition would have to be abolished within the classroom, nation and countries. The elimination of SAT's from our educational system is not as simple as it might first appear and brings along with it other unanswered questions.
Nevertheless, after having just moved to the Foundation Stage and in teaching Reception, I have finally been able to see and use what I understand to be a valuable assessment system in the Foundation Stage Profile document. This focuses on the whole child and assesses all areas of learning, thus not making one area more important or valid than another. It has been enlightening for me to use and I would like to investigate how this could be used throughout Key Stage One as a way of tracking progress. However, what I find all the more interesting is that there have already been moves to generate statistics from this and make predictions about levels of future attainment from it, although this is in contradiction to the author's original intentions.
In some ways, this essay may have raised more questions than it has answered, however I believe that we still have a long journey ahead of us in terms of developing a useful assessment system that satisfies both teachers, government and policy but the current attention it is being given is somewhat encouraging.
á Assessment Reform Group (2002) Testing, Motivation and Learning Cambridge: University of Cambridge
á Black, Paul & Wiliam, Dylan (1998) Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment London: King's College
á Black, Paul & Wiliam, Dylan (2003) 'In praise of Educational research: Formative Assessment' in British Educational Research Journal Vol 29 No 5 Oct 2003 P 623-637
á Broadfoot, Patricia (2007) An Introduction to Assessment London: Continuum International Publishing Group
á Clarke, Shirley (2001) Unlocking Formative Assessment London: Hodder & Stoughton
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á EPPI-Centre 'A systematic review of the impact of summative assessment and tests on students' motivation for learning' at http://eppi.ioe.ac.uk/EPPIWeb/home.aspx?Page=/reel/review_groups/assessment/review_one_summaries_head.htm accessed on 22/10/07
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á Torrance, Harry & Pryor, John (2001) 'Developing Formative Assessment in the classroom: using action research to explore and modify theory' British Educational Research Journal Vol 27 No 5 p 615 – 631
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á Wragg, Edward C (2001) Assessment and Learning in the Primary School London: Routledge Falmer
á 'Schools are 'Exam Factories' says Union' at http://news.sky.com/skynews/article/0,,91211-1282479,00.html accessed on 22/10/07
á 'Too Much Focus on Exams in Schools' at http://news.sky.com/skynews/article/0,,30000-126351,00.html accessed on 22/10/07