Scrap the 2009 Sats marking?

16 Sep 2008 The Guardian

The safest bet is to scrap the 2009 Sats

Pssst, want a hot tip? Put your money on Edexcel to win the contract for marking next year's national curriculum tests. After this year's fiasco with the American company ETS, the exams regulator, the QCA, will certainly want to go for a safe option for 2009. Edexcel has done the job before and is the only one of the big exam boards not to have ruled itself out.

From a commercial point of view, the government is between a rock and a hard place. The clock is ticking fast. The tender for the 2009 Sats only goes out this month. The new contractor will not be in place until October or November, leaving only about six months before the tests take place.

This is a nightmare scenario for the government. It is desperate to avoid a repeat of this year's marking problems. The timescale is alarmingly tight. ETS had something like an 18-month run up. The new contractor will have a third of that. Under these circumstances, Edexcel can almost name its price. But financial cost is not the biggest worry. Consider the political flak if 2009 goes wrong. Yet that must be a strong possibility in view of the tightness of the deadline.

Moreover, the short supply of markers is likely to be an even bigger issue next year. How many of the markers who were messed about this year will be willing to step forward again?

Also, we still do not yet know exactly what went wrong this year. The blame game continues. After taking a serious hit, the American contractors have now complained that the client repeatedly changed the requirements. No, it was the firm's insistence on pushing ahead with the online training system that led to the mess, countered the National Assessment Agency. The Sutherland Review into the 2008 tests is still under way and the final report unlikely before November, by which time the next contract will have been signed and a new contractor will have started work. Will it be possible to make changes as late as November or December and still expect the new contractor to deliver?

One theory expounded by insiders is that the 2008 problems were partly caused by problems with the database of test markers: that ETS had the right names and contact details but the wrong subject speciality for markers. This confusion, it is said, caused the overload on ETS's switchboard and website.

So, with such a high risk of a repeat of the 2008 problems, why is the government insisting on going ahead with next year's tests? I understand ministers did consider the option of scrapping next year's tests but this was dismissed fairly quickly. Ministers knew such a policy U-turn would bring a big hit from political opponents, even though it would have been popular with teachers and, I suspect, many parents.

But the political risks of going ahead are just as great. Even a slight delay in next year's results, or bumpiness in the marking process, and there will be nasty headlines. Another summer of "exam fiasco" stories would be highly damaging. And, significantly, it would come much closer to the likely date of the next election than any row surrounding a decision taken now to scrap next year's tests.

The schools secretary, Ed Balls, may hope that from 2010 it will all change with the introduction of the proposed single level tests. At present, though, there is inadequate evidence to suggest they will be ready by then. Indeed, many assessment experts believe the single level tests are something of a mirage. Instead of "testing when ready" they will, in practice, simply be twice-yearly tests. They are unlikely to make the marking process any easier.

Tests and targets have been two of the most prominent characteristics of the Labour government's education policy. Both have brought no end of trouble. Yet ministers still think they are worth all the bother.

Another bungled round of test marking could yet change their minds.

User Comments

Peter Tallon - 19 Oct 2008

Tests Scrapped

Ed Balls has attempted to avoid a repeat of last year's problems with the delivery of national curriculum test marks by abolishing half of the NCTs - the secondary school half.

"Sats" is fiction, by the way. (And SATs are tests for university entrance. U.K. national tests have never been called this either.)

Peter Tallon
(Member of the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors)

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