SATs don't measure sports, SATs don't measure art. SATs don't measure music, or the kindness in your heart …

SATs don't measure sports, SATs don't measure art. SATs don't measure music, or the kindness in your heart …

These are the opening lines of a poem that went viral in May 2019, just before *SATs commenced in state schools.

It contains an important message which aims to put young people at ease, by reminding them that they are so much more than a test, a score, a tick in the ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ box.

As teachers and parents, we already know this. Day-in-day-out, we see the complete, brilliant and individually talented people our young people really are.

However, the rising stress levels documented by researchers, in even our very youngest children, has been linked to the current testing culture in state schools, which judges the ‘success’ of a school on its SATs scores. For us, this system is problematic, as our Deputy Head, Mrs Kerry Owens summarises:

“SATs are a snapshot of a child’s learning and there is a lack of recognition of the achievements of children who do not reach the expected targets. Feedback is given as a score with no reference to where improvements should be made, and the child’s progress from his or her starting point is never referred to. SATs are meant to measure pupil progress but in fact are used to rank schools in league tables, taking no account of the school’s intake.”

Assessment without SATs

As an independent school, we offer an education experience free from the restrictions of the SATs system. I believe this provides our girls a more positive experience of learning and assessment.

“Thank you to all staff for making these precious years so incredibly inspiring and fun for our little girl.” Parent survey 2019

Early education is very ‘precious’. It determines how our children go on to experience secondary school and beyond. It is where we first discover how exciting learning can be, the doors it opens and the ‘big wide world’ that awaits our exploration.

Our approach to assessment

  • Leaves space for a love of learning. I worry that SATs take the joy out of learning. For example, did our most famous writers and poets spend their childhood sweating over complex grammatical concepts, or did they experience how words express feelings and take imaginations to new places? I suspect perhaps a balance of both … but SATs are primarily interested in the former.
  • All subjects really matter. SATs only assess Mathematics and English. This totally ignores vital learning across the curriculum. If your child has a natural affinity for science, the humanities, sport or the arts – SATs are not interested. We are, and every part of the curriculum at St Mary’s has a vital part to play in providing a well-rounded early education.
  • We nurture a growth mindset. With SATs you ‘pass’ or ‘fail’. As a High Performance Learning School, we don’t see learning in these terms. Learning is a personal journey towards success – which has no limits. Everyone can do it. There will be different routes to progress, but all minds can and will grow. 
  • Assessment is part of life. Our teachers test and observe pupils, as part of everyday interactions, activities and challenges. Therefore girls experience ‘assessment’ as part of everyday life – not something to be anxious about.
  • Progress comes from assessment. How we assess is critical. Each teacher will be considering: How does this child learn most effectively? Have I enabled each child to achieve the learning objective?”. In small classes, we have the time to build a detailed picture of each child’s progress, to inform how we can enable further progress.
  • Communication is vital. We understand individual needs and achievements and our tracking system monitors progress. This means we can regularly discuss progress with parents and pupils, making informed recommendations for additional support or further academic challenge as required.

I don’t wish to take away from the creative, hard work of teachers in the state system, working in a SATs environment. The question I am asking is, have we gone too far, in creating a system that is so narrow in its focus?

Could the experiences in the independent sector offer insight into how we might place more trust into the abilities of teachers to continually assess their pupils? With more focus given to supporting each child, not judging schools on a ‘one-size-fits-all’ test. Recent research indicates that teachers are more than capable of measuring effectively:

"We have shown for the first time that teacher assessments predict GCSE and A-level results just as well as earlier exam scores. The fact that exam scores correlate so highly with the teacher assessments raises questions about the value of the testing culture that characterises compulsory education in the UK." Rimfield et al. 2019

In conclusion, I think the remaining lines of last year’s viral poem highlight rather well, the breadth of things that really count – when you take SATs out of the educational equation.

… SATs don't see your beauty, SATs don't know your worth,

SATs don't see the reasons you were put upon this earth.

SATs don't see your magic, how you make others smile,

SATs don't time how quickly you can run a mile.

SATs don't hear your laughter, or see you've come this far,

SATs are just a tiny glimpse of who you really are.

So sitting at your table, with a pencil and your test,

Remember SATs aren't who you are, remember you're the best.

Author unknown

Poem source

Notes: SATs (Standard Assessment Tests) are taken by all children in state schools at the age of 7 and 11, to measure ability in maths and English. Schools are set a minimum standard to meet: at least 65% of children are expected to have achieved the set standard (a score of 100 or more) in English and maths.

Research: Teacher assessments during compulsory education are as reliable, stable and heritable as standardized test scores. (2019)