Education International
Education International

SATS fiasco: Standard testing fails Britain

published 9 September 2008 updated 9 September 2008

Britain’s system of standardised testing is in disarray following large-scale bungling by the American company contracted to mark students’ papers.

The confusion has left children waiting until autumn for their results and called into question the integrity of the government’s school league tables. Problems emerged in early July when results of Standard Attainment Tests (SATS) were not delivered to schools on time. In the weeks that followed it became apparent that Educational Testing Service (ETS), the company engaged on a £156-million contract to mark the tests, had completely botched the job. The litany of blunders included: - Schools receiving results late or not at all; - Students who took the tests being marked absent; - Tests returned to schools unmarked; - Papers returned to the wrong school. Standard Attainment Tests are taken every May by all children in England and Wales when they end primary school and after three years of secondary school. Compulsory standard tests have long been unpopular with British educators who believe their professional judgment is replaced by a centrally-determined exam. There is also dissatisfaction with the pressure created to ‘teach to the test’ at the expense of other curriculum areas. As the SATS fiasco spread, teachers contacted the media in droves to tell their stories. Mike Blant, head of Winter Gardens Junior School in Essex, told the BBC that of 59 children they registered on 16 May as having taken the tests, as of July 16, 58 were marked in ETS’s system with an "A" for absent. Teachers also used the fiasco to argue the case against standard testing. Tony Mulgrew, Norfolk secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT), told the Eastern Daily Press, “The whole thing is a farce. With a bit of luck this is the final nail in the coffin of SATS. Let's just get rid of them and rely on teacher assessments.” Despite the distress caused by late results, many schools were forced to return papers found to be incompletely marked. Grave doubts also emerged over the reliability of ETS’s marking. Outrage greeted revelations that that teenagers recently graduated from high school were being employed to mark papers. Public confidence wasn’t helped by comments to the media by markers working for ETS complaining of inadequate training, papers delivered late and unreturned calls to the inquiry line. With summer holidays commencing and the government announcing an inquiry, some of the heat went out of the issue as the school year drew to a close. Given the revelations about the standard of marking however, large numbers of students are expected to appeal their results. Many stakeholders, including the NUT, are calling for this year’s league tables – due out in August – to be scrapped. Poor performance by a school in the league tables can lead to it being placed in ‘special measures’ and ultimately closed down. Bigger questions are also being asked about the wisdom of spending large amounts of money outsourcing a massive administrative exercise to fulfil a function which could be done by teachers who are already on the public payroll and observe students’ progress daily. Janis Burdin, head teacher at Moss Side Primary School in Manchester, released examples of two students’ SATS papers to the national media. One wrote: “If he wasent doing enthing els heel help his uncle Herry at the funfair during the day. And had stoody at nigh on other thing he did was invent new rides.” For the same exercise another wrote: “Quickly, it became apparent that Pip was a fantastic rider: a complete natural. But it was his love of horses that led to a tragic accident. An accident that would change his life forever.” Bizarrely, both youngsters were awarded 5 out of 8 for sentence structure. The first student was given 8 out of 12 for composition and effect but the second child was given only 7 out of 12 for what is clearly superior work.