Ed Balls’s surprise decision last week to scrap the KS3 tests is the biggest Government retreat on testing policy in the past 20 years. It is, of course, to be welcomed, in terms of the immediate implications in the classroom: teachers I have been in contact with this week are already savouring the chance to inject some creativity into their year nine lessons, although there are some more cautious voices out there.
But the implications, in terms of what the decision says about the relationship between the accountability system and pupils’ educational experiences, are also worth considering.
In a sense, as I implied in an article for the TES last week, the decision represents the Government going as far as it could in terms of conceding ground to critics of “teaching to the test”, without completely undermining the foundations of its accountability regime.
Balls was clear that KS3 tests were being removed because – essentially – there was no need for them as measures of the performance of secondary schools. GCSE and A-level results were what parents were really interested in, he said, and these could be used to hold schools to account. Heads and teachers could then use teacher assessment, augmented by Government tests which would not be externally marked – to check on the progress of pupils in years seven, eight and nine.
This makes sense. The KS3 tests always were something of an anomaly, in that even the most ardent defender of using exam scores to hold schools to account might concede that they were not necessary. For those who believe in giving heads more freedom to run schools and then judging them on their results, either the key stage 4 and 5 exams, in secondary, or the KS2 tests, in primary, should do the trick.
That said, the decision still represents a major concession from a government which has used the KS3 tests as a way of keeping control over teaching in the early years of secondary. Evidence of this, for me, came with David Blunkett’s decision, when the key stage 3 [national teaching] strategy was launched, to publish the KS3 test scores separately. He knew that this would mean the tests – and the skills they assess – were taken more seriously by both the media and schools, who would focus more attention on them, meaning that the test scores, by which the initiative would be judged, might rise.
Jon Coles, the second most senior civil servant at the DCSF, last month also hinted that removing the KS3 tests would be dangerous, as this period was important for pupils. The implication, again, was that the publication of the results, and the ability of the Government to monitor them, gave ministers a lever of influence over what went on during these three years.
However, the fact that Balls went no further, and said he had no plans to scrap KS2 tests, was revealing. Removing the KS2 tests would mean essentially dismantling the architecture of hyper-accountability, since it would have left no national test to be used as an “outcome measure” by which to judge primary schools.
Yet, in making his decision on the KS3 tests, Balls conceded that a report from the Commons Children, Schools and Families Committee (here), had been important. This document, of course, criticised teaching to the test at both KS2 and at KS3.
So educational arguments – the fact that the tests can have damaging side-effects in terms of, for example, the rise of widespread teaching to the test – appear to have had some traction at KS3, but not at KS2. In other words, they have held sway when the test is not so important for school-by-school performance monitoring and accountability, but not when it is deemed important.
Put another way, when the needs of the accountability system collide with the desire to give the child the best possible educational experience, accountability – astonishingly, to my mind – wins. It still seems bizarre, to me, that this happens without any detailed check on whether the accountability system could be reformed to improve the educational experience for the child. (The Government might assert that this point is being taken on board with the single level test trial, which is continuing in primaries, and the fact that an “expert group” is now working up guidance on how to tell schools not to teach to the test. But this misses the point: single level tests have never addressed the central problem of hyper-accountability: the downsides of trying to use the same test both to check on a child’s progress and to judge the school. And advising schools on cutting down on teaching to the test…well words fail me, really: this doesn’t begin to address the pressures that have built up on schools to do exactly that).
Given the above, it is easy to see how the decision on KS3 is likely to call into question the Government’s entire testing policy, particularly at KS2. Many primary teachers, parents of primary children, and even, perhaps, some children themselves, will be furious that KS2 is not being included. Others will question Balls’s statement to the Commons that “over more than a decade, testing and assessment has played a vital role in driving up standards in primary schools.”
The KS3 decision, though lambasted as a U-turn in some quarters, drew an almost uniformly positive response in the media last week, with some columnists using it as a platform to attack the Sats more generally.
The decision came alongside other announcements from the DCSF, including the possible introduction of school “report cards”, which would sum up the performance of an institution in a single grade; the abandonment of trials of single level tests for secondary children; and the possible launch of a sample testing system at KS3 as a check on national standards, which I may write about in future weeks.