Education notes: Sats and scores education fails the tests

When the Thatcher/Baker Education Act of 1985 introduced a national reporting system for every school and each child, how we laughed. Socialist teachers and progressive people knew that these tests would expose class as the single most significant influence on a child’s educational attainment. We predicted that the data would show not only ‘outcomes’ – test results – but also ‘inputs’ that is, resources from the state and society as a whole. These include: crowded classrooms, inadequate buildings, a high turnover of teachers, lack of after-school activities, not enough cash for the purchase of books, toys, computers, music, sport and leisure facilities; the list is as long as the middle class can make it for their own children. We also knew that redistribution of resources would not follow from national reports.

By 1997 the condition of state schools was so appalling that middle class voters and the better-off sections of the working class put the improvement of education at the top of their priority list. After the election of Labour on the slogan of ‘education, education, education’ a long period of increased public expenditure on state education followed. Labour not only enthusiastically took up the national testing, publication of results and league tables it inherited from the Tories but introduced so many additional layers of tests and targets that English schoolchildren are today the most tested in the world, facing national standards attainment tests (SATS) at ages seven (Key Stage 1), 11 (Key Stage 2) and 14 (Key Stage 3). After that pupils go on to GCSE exams with the much dreaded benchmark success, 5 A-C results including English and maths.

Data-reporting management of schools
The testing regime is a device to both ration state expenditure on the working class and to enforce discipline on teachers, parents and pupils and control over the curriculum. Additionally, the proliferation of data reporting has proved useful in opening up the state system to privatisation. Labour has turned national testing systems and examinations into commodities which are traded as a business opportunity to preferred bidders. The money runs into millions and is largely where Labour’s education budget has gone. Exam costs are now second only to the teaching bill for schools.

ETS ‘best value for money’!
In 2007 British education company Edexcel lost the contract to administer the SATS marking after some exam papers disappeared in the post. It was replaced by ETS (Europe) which won a £165 million five-year ‘irrevocable’ contract to process 9.5 million papers. But this summer the marking of SATS is so chaotic that the whole system of national testing is in a mess.

ETS – Educational Testing Service
ETS is the world’s largest private educational testing organisation, operating on an annual budget of about $1.1 billion. ETS develops standardised tests taken by more than 3 million students annually, primarily in the US, for both schools and higher education.

Starting in 1937 this organisation pioneered the use of mark sense technology using the IBM 805 Test Scoring Machine. Today ETS is a US registered non-profit organisation with the mission ‘to advance quality and equity in education by providing fair and valid assessments, research and related services’. There are several for-profit subsidiaries, such as Prometric, which administers tests by computer for licensing and certification in the professional world, and ETSEMEA, which operates in 42 countries in Europe and has a strong presence in the Middle East and Africa.

There is a history of complaints about ETS mismanagement. In 2004 40,000 teachers sat flawed exams in the US. In 2007 the New York Times described ETS as ‘a highly competitive business operation that is as much multinational monopoly as non-profit institution’. As a non-profit organisation, ETS is exempt from paying federal corporate income tax on most of its operations. Furthermore it does not need to report financial information to the Securities and Exchange Commission. ETS also guards its ‘educational assessment’ secrets – last year a disclosure law was passed in New York State requiring ETS to make available certain test questions and graded answer sheets.

ETS shambles
In England many of the 9,991 SATS markers began complaining about ETS computer assessment programmes as early as February this year. Training was an online marking exercise and errors could be adjusted on screen, so there was no external support. The results, said one KS2 Science marker, would be ‘meaningless’ because examiners were not able to discuss errors with a supervisor. A KS3 marker said she had to input 33,000 marks individually on the computer, and a KS3 Science examiner said he had got his girlfriend’s 10-year-old son to do it. ETS’s helpline was often blocked and emails went unanswered. Additionally exam scripts were sent to the wrong markers, often late or incomplete and it was impossible to amend pupil registration on line. Emergency centres were set up, some, it seems, employing pupils who had just finished A levels, in the hope of completing SATS by the 8 July deadline. Complete national SATS results will not be available until September.

So what?
The ETS shambles gives the lie to the Labour government’s grovelling admiration for private enterprise as a shining beacon of efficiency in contrast to public control. In fact, where the privatised system is designed to generate maximum returns from the minimum possible outlay the margins for error are very small and the whole system depends on zero disruption. As if it is not bad enough that children’s learning is reduced to computerised quick-fire recording, by now the entire education system is. Labour’s data reporting system of managing schools depends on the annual SATS results for schools to plan and organise their classes into sets for the following academic year. Timetables, class size and teacher availability for September all depend on SATS. Inspectors use SATS to judge schools on progress and ‘value-added’, and Ofsted decide on the success or failure of schools according to SATS. Every year the league tables of school performance, area by area, are published and are now an integral part of the competition between schools for pupils, funding and status.

Send for OfQual
Labour, of course, has only one answer to the bureaucratic mess it has created. Make another quango of well-paid testers to test the testers, the Office of Quality or OfQual. Meanwhile the so-called ‘irrevocable’ five-year contract with ETS is in serious trouble, with the government considering ‘all available options’.

Susan Davidson
FRFI 204 August / September 2008


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