Thursday, 21 April 2016

Yesterday's screw-up with the KS1 spelling test: my reaction

Below are some observations on yesterday's screw-up over the Key Stage 1 papers:

First, here's how the BBC is reporting it:

"A Sats spelling test due to be taken by half a million seven-year-olds in England next month was accidentally published as a sample test months ago.
The error was discovered when a school running an official trial of the new national spelling test saw that pupils recognised all the words being tested.
Teachers then found the exact same test was among practice papers on the Department for Education (DfE) website.
The government said it was a "serious error" and was investigating."

1. Every year there is some kind of screw-up with national centralised testing.

2. One kind of reaction to this is: they could do better, they should do better, we must all make every effort to do better, one day we will do better, it's so important to do better so we will strain every sinew to be better, we will be better, because we are really good and next year we will be unbelievably better.

3. My own reaction is this: you run these high stakes centrally-run national tests because you have a misguided idea that this is the way to make education better. In fact, it's having a disastrous effect on education because it is narrowing it down to the testable. The curriculum is fast becoming the test, the pre-test, the booklet for the pre-test, the rehearsal for the booklet for the pre-test, the question that you might find in the booklet for the pre-test....and so on.

The whole apparatus is based on an assumption that it is desirable and necessary to grade children as often and as much as possible. Behind this assumption there is something to do with the ideal child and the ideal teacher and the ideal human. I think is tending-towards-the-fascistic. It's the cult of the unrealisable ideal. But the ideal is based on being right about things which can supposedly only be either right or wrong, as if that is a summary of everything: life, nature, human beings, the universe. It involves the removal or downgrading of investigation, invention, curiosity, varied interpretation, contemplation, compassion, and co-operation. 

The problem is highlighted by this particular test itself. These spelling tests prioritise spelling over, reading, interpretation, discussion, and 'enactment' (writing, drama, art, music responses). Instead, huge amounts of time are taken up with children learning (or supposedly learning) isolated, single words in lists, lists which often involve putting words together which children often confuse, thereby making it easier for them to confuse! Then this is tested.

Yet, in the midst of this, we find that the very people in charge of this apparatus make errors. Of course they do. We all do. But we are not all in charge of an apparatus that pretends that it is possible or desirable to be error-free. We are not in charge of an organisation that penalises and punishes people who are not error-free.

So I rejoice in this screw-up. It reminds me of how we are all fallible. It reminds me of the absurdity and horror of your tending-to-be-fascistic tests that inflict so much stress and anxiety on our children and teachers, and destroy so much of what could be exciting and interesting in school.

4. There are other forms of assessment that have been tried and used in other places. Part of the test-curriculum agenda is to squeeze from view our knowledge of what other forms of assessment might be more useful for children, teachers and parents.