SATs Are Not Fit for Purpose

KS2 results are utterly worthless. The government needs to take urgent action to ensure their reliability.

Solomon Kingsnorth
Jan 6, 2018 · 4 min read

What’s the Problem?

  • In a nutshell: SATs are the final say on a school’s performance but it is far too easy to cheat on them.
  • Under the current arrangements, good SATs results are compulsory but professional integrity is optional.
  • The unreliability of Key Stage 2 performance data skews league tables, screws secondary schools and makes a mockery of school accountability.

The Red Herrings

  • Many people, in good faith, posit that the dishonest schools only constitute a tiny minority. Whilst this may be a comforting thought, it is both unverifiable and, even if true, irrelevant to the main problem.
  • The number of schools cheating (which is a complete unknown) is not the problem; it is the ease with which schools could cheat and the impossibility of knowing whether they did or not that renders KS2 results worthless.

A Level Playing Field

Imagine if the World Anti-Doping Agency suddenly announced an end to drug tests. The Olympics would go on as usual, world records would be smashed, athletics bodies would claim that the minority was so small that it didn’t matter, but would anyone ever be able to trust the outcomes ever again?

Now imagine that someone was openly handing out performance-enhancing drugs at the entrance to the stadium. You decide to play it straight and refuse the offer. However, in the changing rooms you see some of your competitors taking performance-enhancing drugs and then they beat you in every race despite all the odds and all your training.

What Makes It Easy to Cheat?

  1. Test papers can be opened an hour before they are due to begin, without the need to notify any external agency.
  2. Schools are free to administer the tests wherever they like in their school, dividing pupils into as many different rooms as they like.
  3. There is very little to stop scribes manipulating children’s answers on the test paper. This can even be done in a separate room with no one else to witness it.
  4. There is no requirement for schools to have an external invigilator present in tests.
  5. Local Authorities are only required to carry out monitoring visits on 10% of schools.
  6. Local Authorities are openly instructed not to visit a school more than once, so if a school is monitored for one test, they essentially have the all clear for the remaining tests should they decide to cheat.
  7. Headteachers are told in advance when the test scripts will be collected, making it all too possible to manipulate them before sealing the bags.
  8. With no formal process in place for invigilation, there is nothing to stop staff pointing out incorrect answers or helping children who are stuck as they circle the room.

What Can Be Done?

In order of viability:

  • Get headteachers within the same LA to do a swap on the day of the tests. This would be a simple and inexpensive way to increase the reliability of tests. Swaps could be decided at random by the LA with very little notice. Once at the other school, headteachers would invigilate the main room where the tests are taking place and oversee the test scripts being put into a sealed bag as soon as the tests are complete.
  • Schools should be required (at the moment it is simply recommended) to have additional invigilators present in all test rooms (even if they are only invigilating one child and one scribe) and notify the STA who they will be. Perhaps this process could be directly copied from secondary schools.
  • A list of suitable invigilators should be provided to schools in September (e.g. governors, secondary school staff, religious leaders, parents etc), with advice on what to do when they are not available. Eight months is more than enough time to organise robust invigilation.
  • Ban schools from opening test papers early (verified by invigilator). If adapted or translated papers are required these should be requested in advance by the school.
  • Schools should not receive any notice about when test papers will be collected.
  • A simple app could be developed for logging videos of tests being sealed for collection with a digital timestamp. There could be a requirement to do this with the invigilator, who could provide a signature much like when receiving a parcel.
  • There could perhaps also be an option within the app for recording the responses of each child using a scribe. Granted, this would not be free, and the government doesn’t have the greatest track record with technology.

At the more extreme end:

  • Instead of sitting SATs at the end of the year, children could take the tests in the first month of secondary school. This would also encourage schools to embed learning in long term memory, rather than cramming or teaching to the test.

Watch This Space

I feel so strongly about this issue that I am considering ramping up the volume a bit and perhaps formalising the campaign somehow. Whatever you may think of my suggestions, please speak up! If you also feel strongly and you’d like to be kept in the loop about what you can do to help, please get in touch:

Twitter: @solomon_teach


Solomon Kingsnorth

Teacher / Blogger

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