From education to employment

Think tank report finds primary school tests are not fair or accurate

Primary school tests in England are not producing fair and accurate results for pupils or schools 

Following the government’s decision to reintroduce national tests into primary schools after the disruption caused by COVID-19, a new report from the education think tank EDSK finds that the current set of primary school tests is not producing fair and accurate judgements on either pupils or schools.

The report – called ‘Making progress’ – calls on the government to move away from the reliance on one-off high-stakes assessments for pupils in England and replace them with shorter and more reliable online tests.

The report shows that the way in which government holds schools to account for their performance on national tests is distorting the results of the tests themselves. For example, the high-stakes accountability system puts enormous pressure on teachers and school leaders to spend weeks, if not months, preparing pupils for SATs in Year 6, which can also lead to other subjects such as art, music and science being squeezed out of the curriculum.

Meanwhile, giving Ofsted inspectors access to pupils’ scores on the ‘phonics check’ in Year 1 has altered the national results to the point where neither parents nor government ministers can rely on them to provide an accurate measure of pupils’ reading ability. The same problem is likely to undermine the results of the new Year 4 ‘multiplication check’ being introduced this academic year.

The report also finds that having five national tests for pupils throughout primary education creates a significant workload burden for teachers and leaders yet does not help them improve teaching and learning.

SATs at age 11 come too late to provide useful feedback to schools on how they could raise literacy and numeracy standards. In addition, the results from the new ‘reception baseline assessment’ introduced this autumn will only be used to judge schools six years later when a pupil completes their SATs rather than helping teachers understand pupils’ strengths and weaknesses as they learn and develop each year.

The results of some national tests are also rendered useless if a pupil moves to a new school because the current tests are not able to monitor their progress over time.

The report concludes that a new assessment and accountability system is needed for primary schools to address these issues.

The package of reforms proposed by EDSK, to be implemented by 2026, aims to free up time for teaching and learning, track the progress of pupils and schools in a fair and proportionate way, reduce staff workload and accurately monitor national standards over time.

To meet this goal, EDSK proposes three major shifts:

  1. Moving away from the distorting and damaging effects of over-bearing one-off tests and instead using more regular but shorter assessments in three subjects: reading; mathematics; and spelling, punctuation and grammar (SPAG)
  2. Replacing pen-and-paper tests with online assessments, as used in many other countries, to make the results of tests more reliable as well as making the tests less burdensome for schools
  3. Jettisoning the one-size-fits-all nature of SATs in favour of ‘adaptive’ tests that provide a more personalised assessment by giving pupils easier or harder questions depending on their performance during the test

Sector Response 

Nick Brook, deputy general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said:

“The way in which government currently holds primary schools to account through national pupil testing undoubtedly does more harm than good. Today’s report from EDSK shines a light on the problematic nature of the current system, and correctly highlights a number of issues with the way primary statutory assessment currently works. NAHT have long argued for fewer statutory tests throughout the primary years, which have for too long narrowed the curriculum and distracted focus from great teaching and learning.

“In finding a better approach to primary assessment, EDSK are right that we need to think creatively and learn lessons from other education systems around the world. Yet we know that any approach that uses pupil test results to hold schools to account has potential to have unintended impact and introduce perverse incentives.

“It is clear that there are no simple solutions and no perfect answers to this problem, but it’s one that we must continue to wrestle with. As part of this we must be careful not to create a new set of problems in our attempts to solve existing ones. We hope that EDSK’s report will provoke much needed debate and scrutiny on this important theme.”

Tom Richmond100x100Tom Richmond, director of EDSK and lead author of the report, says:

“While there have been some improvements in primary school standards in recent years, we will never provide a world-class primary education in England if the government’s only approach to raising standards is to simply make pupils sit more national tests. Other countries are years ahead of us in replacing pen-and-paper assessments with online adaptive tests to track the performance and progress of primary-aged pupils.

“Requiring pupils to complete so many disconnected one-off high-stakes tests does not help to improve teaching and learning, nor are the tests able to reliably identify the pupils and schools that may need more support. On that basis, a new approach is needed to reduce the pressure on school leaders and the school curriculum while also improving the accuracy and fairness of primary school assessments.”

Related Articles