Tuesday, 11 May 2010

When I was a lad

Two of England's teaching unions are at odds over the future of national curriculum tests for 11-year-olds. The National Union of Teachers (NUT) is continuing to threaten industrial action if the tests – known as SATS – are not scrapped but the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers (NASWUT) issued findings from a poll warning that abolishing the papers would be "reckless".

The NASUWT poll questioned 2,000 teachers about the impact of ending SATS tests for 14-year-olds. Schools Secretary Ed Balls scrapped these in October 2008 saying they were not needed to hold secondary schools to account. The survey found that abolishing the tests had increased teacher workloads and distracted them from teaching and learning. In some cases, the move has led to teachers working at least ten extra hours per class, the NASUWT found. Many teachers are now having to administer internal tests and mark them themselves, as well as carry out their own teacher assessments of pupils.

There are calls for the union to continue its campaign, co-ordinate action with other unions and parents, and to give advice on alternative forms of assessment. It also contains a clause calling for industrial action, including strike action, to disrupt the administration of the tests.

The NUT, and the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) want to see SATS replaced by teacher assessment and argues the tests are bad for children, teachers and education, and cause unnecessary stress. They claim that the tests create a “pressure cooker effect” in primary schools which places children under stress as well as a focus on performance targets. Teachers are allegedly leaving the profession “because they are becoming box tickers and exam crammers, not educators”. They also want to see school league tables abolished.

Comparing the two points of view, there seems to be no common ground. I lack the necessary qualification to decide which opinion is correct - but I know someone who does:

"PRESIDENT ATKINSONS' OPPOSITION TO THE USE OF SAT I John Furedy, Department of Psychology, University of Toronto
Like Richard Atkinson, I am an experimental psychologist (though a far less distinguished one) rather than a differential psychologist who has specialized in psychological test theory. However, I recall enough from my undergraduate courses to recognize that the validity of a test is assessed not by speculating that it "can have a devastating impact on self-esteem and aspirations of young students" ("Use of SAT I 'Compromises Education System' Says UC President", Observer, April 2001), but by determining to what extent performance on the test is correlated with some defined criterion performance (here, academic success in a prestigeous university).
Nor is this correlation with criterion performance expected to be perfect, so that there may well be factors other than sheer cognitive ability in analogical reasoning (factors such as socio-economic class, home environment, and, of course, motivation - recall that living organisms and not computers are being tested) that contribute to test performance. In terms of this normal, scientific criterion of validity, the SAT I, to my knowledge, is a useful instrument, and specialists in psychological test construction have, over the years, improved its validity, though not to any level of perfect prediction. So from the perspective of psychological test theory, I see no rational grounds for Atkinson's recommendation to abandon the SAT I.

Atkinson also advances a more general, educational argument for dropping the SAT I. He avers that it "compromises the education system", and, besides the SAT II (which, he feels, is a better measure than the SAT I - to my knowledge he advances no systematic evidence for this comparative empirical claim about two psychological tests), he suggests that selectors should rely on "grade point average, activity records, and other more 'holistic' measures of students' achievement".

I cannot help noting that the latter two aspects appear to be more related to how well a student can get along with others, rather than to what extent s/he has been able to master various academic disciplines.

Moreover, the North American high school system lacks state-wide standard examinations as exist, for example, in Australia. Grade points, then, are at least partly determined by how much individual teachers like individual students, and hence, in more crude terms, may simply indicate sucking-up, rather than academic, ability. In my view, it is the use of these more subjective and "holistic" measures of student achievement (together with race- and sex-based quotas intended to produce 'diversity') that really "compromise the education system"."

That seems clear enough. It also fits my own experience of examinations. In 1944, I sat what was then known as the 11+ examination. In advance of the examination, parents had the opportunity to nominate the school to which their child should go. The chance of these choices being recognised were determined by the exam. results that were achieved. I may need to remind some that the years immediately prior to 1944 had been ones where the country was subjected to warfare with bombs, doodle-bugs and rockets all adding to the tensions of education. Homework was disrupted. School friends were killed or would appear wounded and shocked. My father ran his own company and employed about 15 workmen so I suppose we might have been regarded as middle class. Even now I can recall the pressure upon me to do well at the 11+ which was described as being the foundation of my continuing education and, thus, my whole future. Our teachers were strict; frequent physical punishment was the norm and it was clear that poor achievement in the exam would be regarded as failure - personally for us, them and the school. So, some 'stress' and 'pressure cooking' there then.

In the event, I did well. I never had any problems with examinations and was to face many until I ceased full time education at 17. Not that I was clever - it was just that I could remember things. (a+b)² was never a problem; the answer sprang into my mind with no real effort at calculation. I went to my parent's grammar school choice but had no personal wish to be there. I rebelled and was withdrawn to spend 18 months amongst the 11+ failures at a Secondary Modern until sitting a 13+ exam which was intended for late developers. This got me to the Technical College I had always wanted to attend from about the age of 9. In all honesty, I cannot see that any teacher assessment would have dealt with that situation. Goody Two Shoes would still have been recommended for the 'posh' school. It was not that my parents did not know what I wanted; every weekend we passed the desired school en-route to my grandmother's house and I always aid "That is where I will go one day"

So, on the basis of personal experience, I have to doubt the NUT version as to the evils of SAT. The way that education seems to be structured in recent years suggests a far easier approach. Children ending up 'on the scrap-heap' is almost routine. After all, doesn't the Government have grandiose schemes to cater for those with low achievement? But I also note that the education system is releasing students who have low reading and mathematical skills and who have been protected from opposition or competition to the extent that team games were frowned upon.

So, whence cometh this Union opposition? I can only deduce that the measure of a teacher's skill, dedication and ability remains their finished product - the rounded student. The head of the school will be looked at in the light of the overall results from his staff. All damned good reasons to avoid the black and white - pass or fail - of any written testing which external agencies may use to evaluate the value of school staff. No questioning why Jack got 6% final mark when Jill at the adjacent school on the same curriculum got 45%. It is open to me in an assessment to say that Jack is a fine lad but needs time to mature or was impaired by frequent absence for undiagnosed illnesses. In other words, get him shipped off my responsibility. T'was not my fault he got such dire results when tested. We would not accept a situation where it was open to a car owner to personally certify that his vehicle was fit to pass a MOT and needed no other testing.

The Conservatives have announced a "hit list" of 75 primary and secondary schools and promised that those running those schools would be removed within the first 100 days of a Conservative government. Such schools are to be reopened the following year as academies. Ah, now there is a word that Unions know about - 'removed'. Off to Do The Boys Hall for them.

Which Union attitude will prevail remains to be seen. I cannot imagine any real Government input. They are undergoing their own SAT test and all parties look to fail in public estimation when they manage to stop dancing around like a load of coochie dancers.

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