Year 6 SATS and “playing the game” – the dysfunction of misaligned incentives

You juke the stats, and majors become colonels. I’ve been here before.

Roland Pryzbylewski – The Wire

Imagine this: Two ambitious teachers in the same school are desperately seeking promotion. They’re equally qualified and have similar levels of experience. Knowing that above all else the head teacher values dedication (and has a keen eye on the signing-in book), Teacher A decides to stay until 6 pm every night to clearly exhibit her dedication. In response, teacher B decides to stay until 6:30 pm the next night. This causes Teacher A to stay until 7 pm the night after that. This battle of one-upmanship continues until both are staying late into the evening every day. In this zero sum game, two people who would benefit from cooperating are forced into actions that leave neither person better off despite the cost to both. This is an example of a ‘race to the bottom‘, a phrase usually associated with economics. Thankfully, the hypothetical head teacher sees what is going on and intervenes: she states that she values time-management skills as much as hard work and actively discourages the two ambitious teachers from working late into the night. Problem solved.

There is a similar race to the bottom in primary schools with regards to year 6 SATS preparation, one that equally requires intervention from those in authority. It has taken place gradually, in small increments, so that the shift has hardly been noticed, but all involved seem to agree that something has gone wrong. Secondary teachers bemoan the unreliability of the results. Parents despair at the unnecessary pressure placed upon their children. Primary teachers complain about the narrowed curriculum, the Easter schools, the after-school SATs clubs that often begin in year 5 and the nudge-wink grey area between perfectly administered assessments and outright cheating.  It is an open secret that this part of our education system is broken.

As with the example of the two ambitious teachers, the problem is that SATs results and league tables are a zero-sum game.  No individual school benefits when the majority are pushing boundaries to tip SATs results in their favour, or “playing the game” as it is often called. To choose not to “play the game” is to burden one’s school with a significant disadvantage in the key measure against which every school stakeholder is judged. When a cohort consists of as few as 30 students, every small part of the game can have a large statistical impact. I’m sure there are head teachers who completely ignore the myriad ways – some subtle, some less so – that SATs results can be nudged in the right direction at the expense of children’s overall educational experience. However, head teachers are human beings, and human beings follow incentives. Rather than demanding that individual head teachers risk their careers for the sake of integrity – in a system that encourages them to compete against others that may not – why not change the incentives that have caused this mess?

Ofsted have taken a first small step towards fixing a problem that they inadvertently created. A greater focus on curriculum and less on statistically measurable outcomes is a start. (Nevertheless, one might argue that the Ofsted’s choice to ignore internal data – though done for sound reasons – may intensify the focus on SATs results.) The problem is that it takes effort to shift people from the status quo, and right now the status quo in primary schools is dysfunctional. Forceful new incentives are required. Here are three suggestions:

1. Ofsted could make it clear to schools that they will try to find out how much SATs-based revision has taken place, and communicate that this will be taken into account when looking at results. (I tweeted Sean Harford on this subject, and he referred me to the draft inspection handbook; however, unless I am mistaken, there is no clear and robust disincentive relating to this subject mentioned in the handbook.)

2. SATs could be administered at the start of year 7 with results feeding back to primary schools.[i] This would incentivise primary schools to – shock, horror – actually continue to teach core subjects properly all the way up until July. It would also incentivise primary schools to focus on long-term retention rather than cramming and exam strategies. (Naturally, end-of-year 6 summer schools would need to be disincentivised as these would no doubt start to crop up; such is the system that currently operates.)

3. Ofsted could get rid of the four grades. Schools should be judged as acceptable or not. Acceptable schools should be given improvement priorities that will contribute to the next Ofsted inspection. Unacceptable schools should be given immediate and wide-ranging support, and – obviously – where irremediable incompetence is found, people should lose their jobs. High Ofsted grades create complacency and low ones create despondency. Ditch them. Where Ofsted find particular practices that they think are potentially worthy of imitation, they should take note and share this information with other schools.

I’m sure there are other solutions to this mess, far more achievable than I could propose. Either way, the current state of affairs cannot be allowed to continue.

[i] One argument against point 2 is that secondary schools would not be able to meet the array of requirements that year 6 children have for these tests: readers, scribes, transcribing, 1:1 confidence-givers, quiet spaces for children who feel the need to read aloud, rest breaks, etc. However, given everything we know about working memory, I think that it is fair to say that some of these access arrangements are up for debate. For example, shouldn’t the ability to independently read and comprehend a question be part of what is assessed in a mathematics assessment? Is it appropriate for a child who can read 91 words per minute to have one hour for a reading test, while another student who reads 89 words per minute gets an additional 15 minutes. Is reading fluency not part of what is being assessed? This is a thorny topic and is beyond the scope of this post. It suffices to say that this is another grey area where schools are incentivised to do anything that might boost SATs results.

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