Memorandum submitted by the National Association
of Head Teachers (NAHT)
Why do we have a centrally run system of testing
It is essential, first of all, to make the key
distinction between assessment and testing:
Assessment lies at the heart of all reaching
and learning and is the fundamental professional activity of any
teacher. It enables them to establish the performance and understanding
of their students, to assist with ongoing learning and development.
Testing covers the final, standardised
awarding of an agreed qualification or level at a particular point.
This applies to the SATs as well as to such qualifications as
GCSEs, A levels etc.
It is where these two activities are not distinguished
from each other that confusion and difficulties arise.
It must be recognised that the British centrally-run
system of testing and qualifications at the end of compulsory
education and beyond is respected internationally. Although there
are ongoing difficulties in the way in which these qualifications
evolve over time, there is no-one calling for the wholesale abolition
of this highly valued system. However, the rationale for the current
centrally-run test system stems for the Government's standards
agenda, with its associated regime of targets, tests and league
The current arrangements by which children are
tested according to national tests are viewed as burdensome and
damaging. A review of this system and of the narrow rationale
securing it is of paramount importance.
What other systems are in place both internationally
and across the UK?
Every school has its own arrangements for internal
assessment, many highly praised during Ofsted inspections and
many reflecting the skills of the teaching workforce. As part
of the National Strategies, a focus on "Assessment for Learning"
has proved to be of great value in enabling teachers to track
and support students through their learning journey.
It is where these activities become directed
solely to successful "passing the SATs" that they become
weakened and potentially damaging.
In many of the countries who have been rated
highly through such international projects as PISA, formal education
begins later than in the UK, and there is no such systemised arrangement
for formal tests. More recent information from countries such
as Holland, Finland and Denmark suggests that there is a greater
emphasis upon play and creativity at younger ages, formal schooling
begins later, teachers have greater autonomy and the system of
national testing and assessment is far less draconian, if it exists
at all. Certainly there is no high stakes testing or publication
of league tables and there is an acceptance that children develop
in different ways and at different rates.
It is also worth noting that, in Wales, a decision
was taken in 2005 to make Key Stage 2 tests optional and abolish
league tables. Instead, the system is predicated on assessment
of an individual's attainment and progress, rather than on accountability
within the system, as in England.
Does a focus on national testing and assessment
reduce the scope for creativity in the curriculum?
At its best, creativity releases the child from
the rigid, formal framework of the national curriculum, to be
able to explore and investigate in a holistic and practical mode,
the wonders of the world around him or her. This approach, however,
has to be extremely well structured and organised by the teacher
and the school, as a framework of essential skills and knowledge,
needs to underpin the curriculum so that the child is able to
develop his or her creativity. The professional activity of ongoing
assessment and understanding of a child's development will never
reduce the scope for creativity. Rather, the encouragement by
a skilled adult will nurture creative development of children
through the early years.
If the time and energies of teachers, parents,
and children are dominated by a narrow syllabus and a narrow range
of activities which will be the subject of high stakes testing,
we run the risk of this dominating the curriculum and this may
well lead to a narrowing of opportunity. If children are straitjacketed
by "teaching to the tests", whether this be at KS1,
KS2 or KS3, there will not be time for the normal, essential creative
development which needs to be a part of the whole educational
Who is the QCA accountable to and is this accountability
The brief of QCA is "to regulate, develop
and modernise the curriculum, assessments, examinations and qualifications".
It is described as "a non-departmental public body, sponsored
by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES). It is governed
by a board, whose members are appointed by the Secretary of State
for Education, and managed on a day to day basis by an Executive
In its regulatory capacity, its role is to ensure
that the Awarding Bodies adhere to the clear rules relating to
their examinations and, from time to time, conduct appropriate
reviews of this work. It is for QCA to take on this role, to ensure
that the trust which has built over time can continue. In this
capacity, QCA is highly effective.
In terms of its role as developer and moderniser
of the curriculum, QCA is extremely careful to involve all key
stakeholders in its reviews and to use the expertise of the teaching
profession, through a wide range of organisations. The integrity
and skill of QCA officials is generally appreciated and respected
by the education professionals.
The QCA is given clear remits relating to aspects
of its work by the DfES and, where there can be frustrations expressed,
it is largely because the remit does not necessarily give QCA
sufficient freedom in aspects of its work. QCA offers sound professional
advice to the DfES but the Secretary of State for Education is
not bound to listen and follow this advice. However, there have
been circumstances where QCA has offered strong recommendations
for caution (eg over the abolition of coursework in GCSE) and
the DfES has asked QCA to undertake further work.
QCA is generally effective but there are potential
dangers in that it is so strictly controlled by the DfES that
all it is empowered to do is offer advice.
What roles should exam boards have in assessment
The Awarding Bodies are highly respected for
their work in ensuring that standards are maintained in external
qualifications over time. In spite of recurrent negative publicity
each August, there is evidence that employers, teachers, parents
and pupils have great confidence in the qualifications that are
offered and awarded. Even the GCE "A" levels have returned
to their former status following the debacle of Curriculum 2000.
The ongoing development of e-testing, the development
of the new diplomas, the support for teachers and students in
working through the new GCSEs and other qualifications are aspects
for which the Awarding Bodies are given due credit.
Questions about the role of coursework, the
viability of the new Diplomas, the risks inherent in the greater
use of the Internet for research and risks of plagiarism and the
issues relating to the increased costs of examination entries
for schools and colleges, all need to be viewed in the context
of general recognition that the Awarding Bodies are successful
as providers of a tried and tested system.
How effective are the current key stage tests?
The current Key Stage tests dominate the work
of Primary schools and, for Secondary schools, during Key Stage
3. This is not healthy. As with any summative assessment system,
the Key Stage tests only give a snapshot of a pupil's ability
at a specific time and in a relatively narrow field.
The programmes of study and the range of the
curriculum are not, in themselves, damaging, but the emphasis
on the outcome of the tests means that the focus of much of the
teaching, in particular in year 6 and in year 9 is on test performance
and likely content. This is clearly insufficient and narrows the
range of what is offered.
The current Key Stage tests are effective in
testing the prescribed content and the schools' effectiveness
in preparing children to undertake these tests. They are not effective
in testing either pupils' broader range of educational achievement
nor in testing the success of a school (except in its success
in preparing pupils for the tests!) There is also a growing body
of evidence that the plethora of testing "windows" is
having a detrimental effect on individual children's health and
Do they adequately reflect levels of performance
of children and schools, and changes in performance over time?
The Key Stage tests provide one source of helpful
performance data for both students and teachers. Because the NAA
draw on long-term, tried and tested skills which ensure that standards
are maintained over time, the tests could be used as one broad
indicator but it is hazardous to draw too many conclusions from
the minutiae of the detail. A teacher's professional knowledge
of the pupil is vitalstatistics are no substitute for professional
As an overall national standard, statistically
the tests are valid. Because of the small size of many of the
individual school cohorts, where a single pupil may count for
more than 15% of the overall score, the statistical validity of
this data is severely limited. The tests only test one aspect
of educational performance and need to be recognised as a single
item of data, to be taken professionally alongside many other
elements. Care needs to be taken over the interpretation of dataover-simplified
interpretation can lead to flawed conclusions. Any use of data
should be as an indicator, rather than a determinator.
Do they provide Assessment for Learning (enabling
teachers to concentrate on areas of a pupil's performance that
The Key Stage tests do have a value in giving
teachers an indication of pupil performance and will provide some
of the data which is helpful in enabling a teacher to understand
the performance of the students. However, they only provide one
measure and need to be treated in this respect.
Assessment for Learning is far broader than
the Key Stage tests and information must be gleaned on an ongoing
basis, from day to day course and schoolwork, and not from one
measure, operated at identifiable points in a child's career,
for which they may well have been overprepared. Assessment in
the normal process presupposes the collection of information over
a period of time rather than relying upon a snapshot of attainment,
in order to ascertain where pupils are and plan where they need
to go. Assessment for Learning is a broad principle, far wider
than feedback from snapshot national tests and countless schools
have developed sophisticated pupil tracking systems through it.
Are they effective in holding schools accountable
for their performance?
The Key Stage tests represent only one measure
of performance. Schools have a wide range of accountability measures,
ranging from financial benchmarking through to full Ofsted inspections.
The development of the self-evaluation systems
which take account of Key Stage test results, alongside other
professional educational data, is far more reliable than the one-dimensional
picture which is offered by the SATs. Schools now have the tools
and are continuing to develop expertise and experience in self-evaluation
and they need to be trusted to get on with the job.
How effective are performance measures such as
value added scores for schools?
Value added measures are part of the rich array
of professional data available to schools, local authorities,
SIPs and Ofsted. To some extent they help to provide a context
within which the narrow SAT information can be viewed. All elements
of professional educational data has its place, but it is to be
used in conjunction with other information, to pose hypotheses
and lead to professional discussion about school improvement,
rather than to make rigid judgements or be used to draw simplistic
and potentially inaccurate conclusions. Whilst the principle behind
value-added scores is reasonable, there is still disquiet about
the validity of data in different contexts. Although the value-added
data is in the public domain, its complexity is such that, at
best, it remains meaningless to the majority of its readers. At
worst, it is open to misuse and abuse.
Are league tables, based on test results, an accurate
reflection of how well schools are performing?
League tables are hugely damaging to the educational
system. They only use one of the many types of measures which
should inform understanding of the context and the success of
a school and its pupils. They should never be used to make simplistic
comparisons between different schools, in different areas, teaching
a different cohort of pupils. They should never be viewed as a
total measure of any school.
League tables based on test results will only
ever indicate how a school has enabled its pupils to perform in
those particular tests and this can never give a full indication
of how effective the organisation is in offering a wide, broad
and appropriate education to those young people in its charge.
Even modified by social deprivation or value added factors, they
can only give a distorted snapshot of the work of a vibrant and
To what extent is there "teaching to the
Because of the external focus on the results
of SATs, there is far too much "teaching to the tests".
Recent survey evidence indicates that, at year 6, for four months
of the school year, schools are spending nearly half their teaching
time preparing pupils for Key Stage 2 tests.
This has been actively encouraged by the DfES
through the provision of "booster classes" and through
the requirement to produce "intervention plans". These
boosters and interventions have not necessarily been used as professional
development plans for the wider education of children. Instead,
they have had the prime focus of ensuring that a small identifiable
cohort of children will be "boosted" to achieve a higher
grade on the narrow range of work relating to particular tests.
This emphasis has narrowed the focus of the
curriculum and introduced professional fear into the work of both
headteachers and individual class teachers. A headteacher's or
a Year 6 teacher's career can be blighted by a single poor performance
(for whatever reason including the unfortunate absence of a couple
of bright pupils). As referred to before, because of the relatively
small cohort tied into any one school's results, the statistical
validity of any test is flawed.
Very few teachers have the confidence to take
risks and introduce dynamic and entirely appropriate rich activities
with students approaching the SATs, if the content appears not
to relate directly to that which will be examined.
How much of a factor is "hot housing"
in the fall off in pupil performance from year 6 to year 7?
A pupil who has been coached emphatically and
successfully to achieve a grade higher than they would naturally
have obtained, may well, when coping with the pressures of transfer
to a new and more adult environment, appear to have "slipped
There is also a danger, reported by many professionals,
that students may learn how to succeed in a particular type of
test, which can give a distorted picture of their broader ability.
There are many examples of year 6 students who have obtained high
levels, particularly in Science SATs, who are not able to replicate
this performance within the secondary curriculum. The results
are not wrong. They merely indicate that the students have learned
how to pass Science SATs and not developed scientific skills and
absorbed scientific content. This can be extremely unhelpful for
the receiving secondary school.
Another huge danger is that the "hot housing"
may not be a stimulating activity and that this may have a damaging
effect on the morale of the student. If booster classes and repetitive
test practice activities are boring and continue to offer more
of the same to the student, they are unlikely to foster a love
of learning such as could be engendered by a rich and creative
If pupils are not force-fed a diet of SATs,
they may well also be able to prepare more broadly for the transition
to the very different environment of secondary school.
Does the importance given to test results mean
that teaching generally is narrowly focused?
Yes, see above. Recent studies have concluded
that the standards agenda has focused teachers' attention to the
detriment of the rest of the curriculum.
What role does assessment by teachers have in
teaching and learning?
Assessment by teachers lies at the heart of
all teaching and learning. Assessment may be formal and thorough,
or brief and effective and undertaken through oral or other processes.
Not all recent developments have been unhelpful in this respect:
for instance, the teacher assessment component of national assessment
prepared teachers for Assessment for Learning and the emphasis
on personalised learning.
Every teacher is assessing the performance of
his or her pupils at every point in the teaching and learning
activity. It may not be formal; it may not be extensive but at
every point, information about what a child knows or does not
know is used by the skilled teacher in making decisions about
the advice to be given, the encouragement to be given and the
ongoing educational needs of the pupils. True personalised learning
depends on skilled ongoing assessment by the teacher and on skilled
self-assessment by the pupil.
It is vital that we do not confuse assessment
with formal test structures.
Should the system of national tests be changed?
The tests themselves are not inherently the
root of the problem. It is the emphasis and use of the results
that has done and continues to do the damage. The high-stakes
nature of the process is that which is leading to the skewing
of the curriculum and the stress which is unhelpful and unhealthy
for students and their teachers. The majority of our members do
not have an issue with the principle of testing. The crucial issue
remains the high stakes nature of the process and the emphasis
on published league tables, coupled with the linking to inspection
League tables need to be abolished and it needs
to be recognised that SATs only offer one of many elements by
which a school and its success should be evaluated. The current
system needs to be changed. Whether or not the tests themselves
need to be fundamentally revised is a totally different question.
If so, should the tests be modified or abolished?
League tables should be abolished as should
the unhealthy emphasis on a single outcome measure.
If the current arrangements are significantly
modified along the lines indicated above, a review of the content
and style of the tests can be undertaken in a professional and
non-emotional professional activity, through thorough and appropriate
consultation with all interested parties. This consultation needs
to be open and transparent, involving all interested parties and
must look at the nature of and the rationale behind the continuation
The Secretary of State for Education has suggested
that there should be a move towards more personalised assessment
to measure how a pupil's level of attainment has moved over time.
Pilot areas to test proposals have just been announced. Would
the introduction of this kind of assessment make it possible to
make an overall judgement on a school's performance?
The proposals included in the Making Good
Progress consultation would lead to a different data set which
can be used by schools. This would be different information which
would have its own value used in a professional context. There
is no reason to assume that this different data set would be any
more accurate or any less damaging than the current data set if
taken in isolation. Any overall judgement of a school's
performance would be no more infallible and no less misleading
than current information.
The new proposals are based on an assumption
that a young child should make a particular path of progress at
a particular rate. Children learn in different ways and at different
rates. The underlying assumption, that there is an optimum and
fixed rate of progress over time for all pupils, is flawed. The
danger is that one inadequate measure may be exchanged for another.
As stated previously, data provides an indication of knowledge
and progress, it is not a definitive determinator.
However, as professional data, the information
drawn about pupil performance from tests taken "when ready"
will have significant value to the school and will fit with other
elements of data to assist with school improvement, pupil support
and true assessment.
Would it be possible to make meaningful comparisons
between different schools?
No. If the pupil is put at the centre of learning,
rather than maintaining the current system of school accountability,
then the data gives assistance to the planning and developing
of the learning for the pupil. It does not support the comparison
between different schools.
What effect would testing at different times have
on pupils and schools? Would it create pressure on schools to
push pupils to take tests earlier?
It is not possible to guess with accuracy what
the impact of the new style of tests might be. There will be schools
where students are encouraged to take tests early. There may be
other schools where students are encouraged to take tests at a
later point when they are more likely to have perfected their
performances in the named activities. Teachers, parents and students
will learn the rules of the new game over time.
There may also be logistical difficulties in
some primary schools if the testing has to take place over a longer
period of time and there could potentially be greater costs and
more disruption to the curriculum. Consideration must be given
to the issues for pupils with special educational needs. The P
levels used are not suitable for any summative approach.
If Key Stage tests remain, what should they be
seeking to measure?
Key Stage tests should be used to test the skills
itemised within the related programmes of study. They should be
used within schools as internal professional data to assist in
the process of individual pupil progress and overall school improvement.
They should not be used to provide league table data.
It should be possible to develop a bank of external
tests which can be used when a school feels that the pupil is
ready. These tests should be linked to relevant programmes of
study, should be skills-based and should be used solely for schools'
internal data collection and analysis. This would enable cohort
sampling to be built into this to help inform national trends
from time to time.
If, for example, a Level 4 is the average for
an 11 year old, what proportion of children is it reasonable to
expect to achieve at that or above that level?
Children learn at different rates and in different
ways. Some 11 year olds will have far exceeded a Level 4, whereas
others may need longer to arrive at their destination. What is
important is that schools encourage and support pupils to make
the progress which they, as individuals, need to make. Local approaches
to formative assessment and pupil progress measurements are, in
most settings, highly effective. Schools are only too aware that
children do not always progress in a regular, linear manner.
We must not label as failures 11-year-olds who
learn more slowly or who have skills in different aspects which
cannot be described in such concepts as "Level 4". What
is a Level 4 Happiness or a Level 5 Social Responsibility? How
can we expect a certain, arbitrary percentage to succeed or fail?
More importantly, why should we?
How are the different levels of performance expected
at each age decided on? Is there broad agreement that the levels
are meaningful and appropriate?
The current descriptions and levels relate to
one narrow aspect of the educational and curricular experience.
If they are agreed to be criterion-referenced measures relating
to specific programmes of study, then it is possible to decide
which children have achieved the desired level. The mistake that
is too often made is to assume that the output data relates to
a far broader range of skills. It does not.
16 AND AFTER
Is the testing and assessment in "summative"
tests (eg GCSE AS A2) fit for purpose?
The current "summative" tests and
qualifications at age 16 and after are generally respected and
regarded as fit for purpose. There are a number of modifications
due to come into force from September 2008 and these have been
the subject of professional consultation.
While there are some aspects which will continue
to need to be modified to keep up with wider developments, generally
GCSE, AS and A2 are not in need of major imposed revisions. Answers
to other questions will give further information relating to those
aspects which need to be kept under review.
Are the changes to GCSE coursework due to come
into effect in 2009 reasonable? What alternative forms of assessment
might be used?
The concerns and the media furore about coursework
and the inevitable increase in plagiarism as a result of the accessibility
of materials on the Internet have been largely out of proportion
to the potential difficulties to the system and takes no account
of the changed learning patterns and environment that students
Where a student has copied large quantities
of material from the Internet, the teacher is usually able to
detect the fraud. Discrepancies in the pupils' style, poor blending
of the plagiarised material with the student's own work, and teacher
common sense will largely reduce the impact of this growing trend.
It is not new. Pupils have always tried to use extraneous material
(and where does research end and plagiarism begin?). English teachers
have long been accustomed to challenging the inappropriate use
of other materials in student essays.
The initial reaction to get rid of coursework
was inappropriate and draconian. Thankfully, a more balanced approach
has been adopted since and, by treating each of the different
subject disciplines at GCSE in different ways, an appropriate
solution appears to be on the horizon.
Coursework will always be an entirely appropriate
and important part of any student's work throughout study. Whether
or not the coursework becomes part of the summative test which
gives the final grade for the qualification is another matter.
It may be that coursework could be a part of the teacher assessed
element. Alternative approaches are being considered as part of
the consultation on coursework in conjunction with the Awarding
Bodies and QCA.
What are the benefits of exams and coursework?
How should they work together? What should the balance be?
Students need to be capable of undertaking independent
research and study. Coursework, with varying levels of teacher
intervention and assistance, is one of the best ways of ensuring
that this can be undertaken. This is recognised and, as part of
the Diplomas, an Extended Project is viewed as an essential element.
This is entirely right.
To be so fearful of the dangers of plagiarism
and the Internet would be to deny both teachers and students a
vital part of the educational experience. The balance between
coursework, assessed coursework and terminal examination will,
quite rightly, vary from subject discipline to subject discipline.
Will the ways in which the new 14-19 Diplomas
are to be assessed impact on other qualifications such as GCSE?
The new 14-19 Diplomas offer the opportunity
for a radical and imaginative approach to assessment. Whether
or not this opportunity will be taken remains to be seen.
The Extended Project, modular study, "when
ready" testing and e-assessment are all aspects which will
have implications for other qualifications.
However, it would be a mistake to regard the
Diplomas as a completely new departure from conventional assessment.
There have been for many years, innovative and varied forms of
assessment in existing GCSE and A levels and it is hoped that
the knowledge and experience of these can be a solid foundation
for summative assessment in the future.
It is ironic that, as we remove the GCSE coursework
from many of the subjects, we are seeking ways of assessing and
evaluating Extended Projects at Level 2. One might ask, just what
are the key differences between these two types of assessment?
Is holding formal summative tests at 16, 17 and
18 imposing too great a burden on students? If so, what changes
should be made?
Until the formal leaving age is accepted as
18, it will be necessary to have some form of summative testing
and qualification at age 16. GCSEs, Level 1 and 2 Diplomas and
other suitable qualifications (which may include i-GCSEs) will
need to remain until it becomes the norm for all students to proceed
to education and training post 16. The Tomlinson report offered
a widely respected and viable alternative but when this was rejected,
the educational world had to return to ensuring that the current
system was as effective as possible.
It will remain necessary to have a summative
examination so that a reliable, standardised award may be given
at the end of a Level 1, 2 or 3 course.
There are some subjects where there have been
too many, too complex modules but these are the subject of further
consultation. The question of re-takes is also under review. It
is this which places too great a burden on students and takes
them away from study and the course to focus on excessive examination.
Generally, the existing system is fit for purpose.
To what extent is frequent, modular assessment
altering both the scope of teaching and the style of teaching?
Frequent modular assessment is not new. In the
early days of GCSE Mode 3, this became an excellent method of
ensuring ongoing motivation for students for whom a terminal examination
and traditional methods was not attractive.
The new Diplomas will contain considerable elements
of modularisation and it is anticipated that these individual
elements will have the possibility of being counted for different
awards at different levels and in different combinations. The
Minerva software, currently being developed, is intended to be
the basis for the management of this new system.
Teachers have welcomed the moves towards modularisation
because of the positive benefits in terms of motivation, and because
students can achieve credit for key aspects of the course in spite
of finding some parts of the final qualification too challenging
If anything will assist the reintegration of
some of the NEETs (young people not in education, employment or
training) it will be the further, suitable development of modular,
component assessment within the new vocational diplomas.
How does the national assessment system interact
with university entrance? What are the implications for a national
system of testing and assessment from universities setting individual
Universities have been worried about the rise
in the number of students who achieve grade A in the A levels.
They argue that this had made it more difficult to select the
truly high achievers. Making the actual points level detail available
to universities should have gone some way towards indicating which
of the students are the highest achievers.
Whether or not it will be possible to introduce
PQA (post qualification application) will depend on negotiations
between Awarding Bodies, schools and universities on the question
of timescales. If the universities can move their start dates
back, it may be possible to complete the A level assessment before
they make the firm offers. Moves to bring forward the A level
results dates and curtailing the marking period for the Awarding
Bodies will also assist with this.
It is to be hoped that universities will accept
and welcome the new Diplomas. The Secretary of State for Education
has urged them to join with the rest of the educational world
in giving the new qualifications a fair and successful start.
Some universities, however, will inevitably seek to develop their
own admissions criteria and we must not arrest the new developments
to pander to their views.
Far more worrying must be the trend of the independent
schools to turn to alternatives such as the i-GCSEs and the International
Baccalaureate. It will be essential that QCA and educational organisations
work together to ensure that we have a consistent, coherent system
of examinations and qualifications at the end of Key Stage 4 and
at the end of compulsory schooling.