Saturday, 17 May 2008

SAT troubles

There's been a lot of upheaval this week about SAT tests. After a report published by the Children, Schools and Family committee of the House of Commons, MPs warn that national Sats tests distort education, which then lead to the schools minister defending the Sats, followed by technical difficulties with the tests. Personally I am not convinced the tests are really the problem.

One of the keynotes at the Blackboard Europe 2008 conference was given by Andreas Schleicher, the director of the PISA program for the OECD. He presented a very compelling set of ideas around successful (secondary) educations. Some of the conditions he identified (and all of these are based on the data gathered by the programme over the past years) are:

  • No stratification. Education systems that have separate streams, schools and or qualifications for learners based on their performance tend to do poorly. An example of this is the Dutch system, where secondary education is stratified over VMBO, HAVO and VWO based on a learners performance in primary school. The British system actually comes out quite well here (if we ignore the stratification that takes place because of the divide between private and public schools that is).
  • Standards. It is important to work to common standards. Central examinations are one way of enforcing common standards, and so the SAT tests do satisfy this condition.
  • Autonomy. It is crucial for schools and teachers to have a high degree of autonomy as long as their performance raises no concerns. Here we obviously fail completely as the British system dictates how schools teach and assess to a very high degree.
  • High Expectations, challenge and support. Both for teachers and learners, education should provide challenge, the expectation of high performance, but also plenty of support (staff development for instance). I think this is another area in which we fail to deliver.

Our main problem lies in the area of autonomy. We no longer trust our teachers and schools do do what they do best based on their professional judgments. In stead there is this weird notion that education is better served by central generic judgments made by policymakers. The problem with SATs isn't that they provide a common high stakes benchmark for learners. The problem is that this information is abused for public league tables and the like, which inevitably leads to pressures on learners that have nothing to do with their personal learning. It's the same pressures that lead to Universities coercing students into filling out the national student survey more favorably.

In Finland schools have no idea about their performance related to their neighbors. Funny enough in Finland it doesn't really make a difference. Only 4% of the variance in scores on the PISA tests can be assigned to the difference in quality between schools. Finnish schools have around 9 applicants for every position offered, and this is not because of higher salaries or anything like that. It is because the system in Finland provides a challenging environment in which people are valued, can grow and develop and actually make a difference.

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