SATS and the school testing regime
School pupils in the UK are subjected to extensive testing throughout their school careers under the terms of the national curriculum. All maintained schools are required to participate in these national curriculum assessments, commonly known as Standard Assessment Tests (SATs).
Introduced under the Education Reform Act 1988, the national curriculum was aimed at ensuring that all pupils were following a sufficiently broad and balanced educational programme, and that attainment was carefully monitored in order to ensure improvements.
The national curriculum is organised into ‘Key Stages’ (KS). At the end of each Key Stage, formal teacher assessments and/or national tests take place. For each subject there is a ‘programme of study’; there are also ‘attainment targets’ usually split into eight levels for each subject.
The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) sets the national standard for children up to the age of five. All Early Years providers must complete an EYFS profile for each child in the final term of the year when a child reaches the age of five – usually the Reception year at primary school.
From September 2020, children in all qualifying schools undertake a new baseline assessment within the first six weeks of entering their Reception class. This focuses on maths, and literacy, communication and development.
For Key Stage 1 pupils, aged 5-7 in Years 1 and 2, a phonics screening check is carried out at the end of Year 1 and teacher assessments in english, maths and science at the end of Year 2.
Key Stage 2 pupils, aged 7-11 in Years 3,4,5 and 6, sit national tests and undergo teacher assessments in English, maths and science at the end of Year 6. Since the 2019-20 academic year, all qualifying schools are required to administer an online multiplication tables check for children in year four (normally aged 8 or 9). This will test recall of times tables up to 12.
For Key Stage 3 pupils, aged 11-14 in Years 7,8,and 9, teacher assessments are carried out annually. Standardised optional tests are also available to support teachers in assessing pupils’ progress throughout Years 7, 8 and 9. They are available in English and Maths for Years 7, 8,and 9 and in science for Year 9.
Key Stage 4 pupils, age 14-16 in Years 10 and 11, usually take GCSEs or other national qualifications at the end of Year 11. Some pupils may take GCSEs earlier at the end of Year 10.
The Department for Education publishes a range of statistics on the attainment and progress of primary school children. Summary statistics for individual schools can be found on the Department’s Compare School Performance website
The Standards and Testing Agency (STA), an executive arm of the Department for Education, is responsible for the development and delivery of all standard assessment tests (SATS) from Early years to the end of Key Stage 3.
The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) is responsible for the regulation of qualifications, examinations and assessments in England and vocational qualifications in Northern Ireland.
The History of Standard Assessment Tests
Testing in schools has a long history, but it was in the late 1980s that testing as a means of improving attainment moved to the centre stage of educational policy, hand-in-hand with the rise of school inspections. The two remain to this day at the centre of government attempts to ensure consistency and high standards in educational provision.
The national curriculum and its testing regimes were thoroughly revised in 1995 and 2000, but across this period multiple and cumulative changes were introduced.
When the Labour Party came to power in 1997, the Government adopted the accountability and testing regime put in place by the Conservatives, and indeed went further with it, introducing additional requirements alongside, and in some instances at the expense of, the national curriculum – such as the “Literacy Hour” of the National Literacy Strategy, and the National Numeracy Strategy – although these have since been incorporated into the National Curriculum proper.
Moreover, the Government set a SATS target for 2002 of 80 per cent of 11-year-olds achieving Level 4 or above in the KS2 tests, a step which would result in the then Education Secretary Estelle Morris resigning due to the target not being met.
Further changes were introduced to the curriculum for Year 7 and above in September 2008, designed, according to the Government, to make education “more robust and relevant to the world we live in”.
Qualifications for 14-19 year olds were to be gradually streamlined via three main – but flexible – routes:
At age 14, pupils would be able to choose a Diploma, GCSEs, or a young apprenticeship. Support for those not ready to select a major qualification at 14 was to be given through the new Foundation Learning Tier.
At age 16, in school or college or with an independent learning provider, they would be able to take a Diploma, or A Levels, or an apprenticeship.
A further option at 16 was to be in work, with time set aside for training.
Changes since 2010
Shortly after coming to power in May 2010 the new Coalition government outlined plans for a comprehensive re-assessment of the whole school system.
The Schools White Paper – ‘The Importance of Teaching’ – published in November 2010 confirmed that the new Coalition government would legislate to change Ofqual’s objectives so that in future, international comparisons with the most rigorous exam systems in the world would play a key role in the development of exams in the UK.
One of the new government’s first changes was to allow pupils at state schools to study for iGCSE qualifications – something which had been available in the independent sector for some time. Also the development of new Diplomas in science, humanities and languages, due to be introduced in September 2011, was halted
In addition, the then Education Secretary, Michael Gove, announced in January 2011 that there would be a “major review” of the national curriculum in England, the intention being to replace the current “substandard” curriculum with one based on the best school systems in the world.
In December 2012, the Government confirmed that as part of SATS a new statutory test of English grammar, punctuation and spelling would be introduced for children at the end of Key Stage 2 from May 2013.
In 2016 the results from the Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 national curriculum assessments were reported as scaled scores rather than levels. In September 2016, results from the Key Stage 2 SATS assessments, showed that 53% of children achieved the expected standard in all of reading, writing and maths.
Despite the then Education Secretary Nicky Morgan suggested in 2015, that a year 6 pupil who didn’t meet the required level at the end of Key Stage 2, might be required to resit their SATs exams when starting secondary school. However these plans were dropped in 2016.
In November 2018, the Department for Education announced that pupils with complex special educational needs would be assessed using an ‘aspects of engagement’ approach from 2020.
National curriculum assessments (SATS) are one of the means through which the Department for Education holds schools accountable for their performance. However in 2019, the Schools’ inspectorate, Ofsted, introduced a new education inspection framework which aimed to place greater focus on curriculum breadth and depth, and less focus on internally generated school performance data.
Much of the controversy that surrounded the introduction of the National Curriculum related to the rigour and the validity of the SATS testing regime. While few now argue against a National Curriculum as such, testing remains a central dispute in education.
The National Curriculum was introduced in response to concerns around Local Educational Authorities controlling the curriculum, with the suggestion that the low expectations of some teachers, was resulting in declining educational standards.
Against the indicators measured, the whole apparatus of educational monitoring – which includes the National Curriculum, testing, the work of Ofsted and other interventions – has caused performance to improve since the late 1980s. Whether the indicators the regime employs are correct or meaningful is, however, disputed.
Opponents of the testing regime have argued that there is too much testing in schools and that much of schooling becomes an exercise in SATS preparation and practice tests, rather than the wider educational experience they contend it should be.
Multiple surveys have suggested that preparation for the end of Key Stage tests – and other Government initiatives such as the Literacy Hour – have eaten into the time available for the national curriculum “foundation” subjects (history, geography, technology, languages, art, music and physical education). As such, opponents have alleged that the national curriculum, has had the perverse effect of narrowing the curriculum.
Educationalists have also expressed concern about the standards set in the tests, which they claim are not based on empirical evidence about children’s attainment levels, but on assumptions about what children should be able to do at certain ages. Some educational psychologists and teachers also claim that the pressure put on children by parents in relation to a SATS paper or the SATS week is damaging to their welfare. In particular, many argue that 7 year olds are too young for formal testing.
Nonetheless, the political debate around SATS testing in schools, is heavily led by the impact on teachers and schools. The school league tables, which test results are used to compile, and which are one indicator of a school’s performance, are deeply unpopular in many quarters. The league tables have been revised in recent years, to include “value-added” indicators, taking account of prevailing local socio-economic circumstances.
Educational egalitarians, oppose league tables in principle, as improperly promoting the idea that schools are in competition with one another. The Scottish Executive previously decided that it would abolish league tables altogether, promising parents a more “meaningful” barometer of performance.
SATS tests are also deeply unpopular with many teachers who object to the additional workload that the testing regime imposes upon them, the prescriptive nature of the preparations and the standards measured, and the disruption caused to the educational programme. In 2003, efforts by the NUT union to boycott 2004’s tests outright almost succeeded. A ballot saw 86 per cent of members in favour, but the action did not go ahead due to legal technicalities.
Key Stage 2 results:
65% of pupils reached the expected standard in all of reading, writing and maths (combined) in 2019, up from 64% in 2018.
11% of pupils reached the higher standard in 2019, up from 10% in 2018.
Girls continue to outperform boys at the expected standard across all test subjects. In 2019, 70% of girls reached the expected standard in reading, writing and maths (combined) compared to 60% of boys, a gender gap3 of 10pp, up from 8pp in 2018. This has been driven by an increase in the gender gap in reading, with 78% of girls reaching the expected standard compared to 69% of boys.
[Source – Department for Education, 2019]