Alexander spotted it straightaway. ‘Are you doing our tests?’ he said with interest. ‘What tests are those?’ said I. He explained he’d heard on the telly that all seven-year-olds were going to be tested ‘for the government’ and he’d been waiting to have his. Well, I had to come clean and admit that there would be some tests and that this time when he read with me I would be looking out for how many words he could read without my help. What, I wondered, did he think of the idea? He smiled engagingly… ‘It seems a bit silly. I’ve read with you lots of times; you ought to know how I can read by now I should think.’
And so, of course, I do. I know Alexander’s reading very well. I know he has a ‘taste for the quirky and unusual; he had just read Tales of a One Way Street and admired the way the stories seem ordinary and then ‘sort of turn round and surprise you’. I know he reads a book a day and an extra one on Saturday ‘because I read one at the library while Mummy does the shopping’ and I know that he reads fluently and skilfully … especially when reading silently which he prefers because it’s quicker.
He read beautifully, as I knew he would, and gained his Level Three label with ease. Good old Alexander! A few more like him and I could tackle the Level Twos. Let me think … half an hour or so for each Level Three, say fifteen minutes for each Level Two, an open-ended amount for Level One. I should have SAT on them all in about fifteen teaching hours. It’s a good job I’m not the class teacher with all those Writing, Spelling, Maths and Science assessments to make as well. At least it’s only the admin. that’s going to the wall, not children’s teaming.
What’s it all in aid of? It isn’t for the children’s benefit that normal service was suspended for five weeks; they’re having their most lovely term snatched away from them. The summer term of their top infant year, when so many of them grow up before our eyes and revel in their new powers, the term of outings and trips and drawing cowslips and ladybirds, the term when just a bit more teaching will give little Zoe (summer born and struggling) the confidence to read for herself and will teach David to skip at last. All this is wasted and lost … the time that for us and our ‘big children’ will never come again.
Certainly it can’t be for the teachers. Run ragged by the need to respond to every bright idea Elizabeth House dreams up, peering out from under expensive heaps of files and booklets, told how to do their jobs by people whose only contact with teaching is that they once went to school, trying to do it all in thirty hours (less administration, form-filling, oh yes, and the reading SATs). Would we have chosen this as the culmination of our children’s precious infant schooling, the way we’d want to remember April, May and June and the children whose company we’re privileged to have shared?
For the parents then? For their ‘right to know’? Parents who’ve been in and out of school since their child started with us? Who have a knowledge of their child down to the number of teeth he’s lost and what are his favourite songs? Are they really to benefit from being given a number which is supposed, by the time it’s been ‘resolved’ and averaged and weighted and summated, to tell them all about their child’s abilities in the complexities of language and science and maths? We might as well sort them by their zodiac signs. At least that would give twelve categories instead of only three. ‘Your child is a Two in English’ has all the subtlety and nuance of assessing the bouquet of a bottle of wine by smashing it over the waiter.
I think Alexander had it bang to rights when he described it being ‘for the government’. What the motivation is, I’m not sure Is it to be seen to be doing something about something? Is it to discredit teachers? Is it to keep parents quiet about resources? Is even, out of genuine concern for small children? I don’t know But I do know that it’s cost a fortune which could have provided another teacher in every school, or extra books or computers visits to museums. I do know it’s taken up time which could have been spent on reading books or sewing or teaming how to write italics.
And yet, surely, something can be said for it all?
Well, of course, the choice of books is interesting. If your child has spent two years working her way through Gayway or Ginn 360 it will be a shock to be presented with the readerly requirement; much of the literature of SATs. (We actually had a differ problem at Level Two. So many of the books were familiar to children, I had a job to provide some of them with a choice that would fulfil the need for a book they didn’t know well.)
Yes, the books were, on the whole, all right. What we were asked to do with them, however, was very odd. The idea that, say, The Very Hungry Caterpillar was only suitable for the emergent reader and couldn’t be offered to a child at the independent reading stage, while The Little Red Hen is presented as only suitable for Level Two readers, is exactly the opposite of the apprenticeship model of reading, in which a good book is seen as valuable at any of the levels of reading development. Surely Level One can be assessed with The Little Red Hen and Level Two works just as well with Eric Carle? That, after all, is what multi-layered books such as these are so good at, enabling all children to interact with them and to show what they can do. The notion of books as rungs on a ladder which you leave behind as you progress past them is exactly what we’ve been fighting against for so long. Here it is again pretending to be valid for telling about a child’s reading ability.
Still, the SAT has put a model of reading assessment into every school which is certainly better than using the Richter scale approach which might have been chosen. (This, of course, is the system in which the assumption is made that knowing a child’s reading age tells you something about his reading development, attitudes and skills. It’s about as meaningful as thinking that knowing what an earthquake measured on the Richter scale will tell you what it was like to live through it.)
Even then, though, this small benefit has been spoiled by the sloppiness with which it’s been organised. The child who can read and understand Little Bear is a quite different reader. from the one who can tackle The Sick Cow. The ability to read Joe’s Cafe is no indicator of an understanding of A Necklace of Raindrops. The skills needed, the sophistication, the vocabulary are not the same. Should we choose to test the children on the easiest option offered to us so they can do their best, or should we use it as a learning experience and challenge them? (You must be joking … we want good scores for our school!)
Sloppiness even characterises the marking system. ‘Errors’ are only counted if the teacher intervenes to tell the child what the error is. Keep Quiet. No ‘Teacher tolds’, no failure. It’s a good job we’re all honest and conscientious and wouldn’t dream of allowing a child to read nonsense for the sake of claiming another Level Two.
Not to be too grudging, though, I admit to reading about a school which took part in last year’s trials. The staff were so taken by the miscue analysis model of assessing reading, they’ve carried on using it ever since. Certainly, if it is really new to a school, it can’t help but be a good thing for the teachers to be introduced to the notion of looking at a child’s strategies and behaviours as a way of learning about them. Just as it must be a good thing for reading schemers to be introduced to the notion that you don’t need one to help a child learn to read.
I suppose, too, there’s even some good to be found in the pathetic sight of parents fighting to buy the government approved books. Anything which gets parents into bookshops and Maurice Sendak into children’s homes can’t be all bad. (Even if I had to find out what books I was supposed to use for the SAT via a crumpled cutting from a parent’s newspaper. Contempt for the professional can hardly have been more clearly expressed.)
Despite all this, however, I do know that very soon, perhaps not next year but certainly soon, the whole thing will disappear. It will have cost billions and it will be ended. There is no way in which this farce can be sustained year after year. It’s too expensive, too impractical, too pointless. We shall have the dubious satisfaction of being in on the largest and most costly failed experiment in education ever. When the collapse comes and the statutory orders are withdrawn and the SATs are no more, we’ll go back to asking teachers to know about children and tell what they know to parents. We may be more definite about how we know it and how we are going to tell it … but that is no bad thing. We may have new insights into the good, the bad and the ugly of assessment and reporting … that won’t be bad either.
What we will have returned to, though, is what Alexander knew all along – the idea that the only way to know a child is to work with him and alongside him while he learns and that the only way to say something about a child’s reading is to read things with him. All we can ask is, ‘How long, Lord, how long?’
Liz Waterland is no stranger to regular readers of BfK – she’s one of our reviewers and Headteacher of an infant school in Peterborough. She’s also author of Read With Me (0 903355 17 5, £2.85) and editor of Apprenticeship in Action: teachers write about Read With Me (0 903355 310, £4.75). Both publications are from Signal at Thimble Press, Lockwood, Station Road, Woodchester, Stroud, Glos. GL5 5EQ. The prices given include postage.