Anthea Davey: Who'll rid us of the troublesome tests?

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The Independent Online

Last week, I finished teaching Macbeth to my Year 9 class in preparation for their SATs in May. They have worked hard and should see the exam as a reflection of their ability and three years' study. But, as their teacher, I'm unable to share their confidence. My experience of the SATs has been of an exam in flux, which assesses skills that aren't useful and ignores those that are.

SATs have always been controversial and the English exam is particularly contentious. The argument between "traditional" English, focusing on grammar and Shakespeare, and "liberal" theories concerned with expression and emotion, means the exam swings between extremes. The test is ever more reductive of language and literature. Partly this is because the marking is often done by non-specialists. Last year's reading paper included an extract from Treasure Island. Rather than seeking an emotional response to the text, students had to explain its language, rewriting metaphors rather than commenting on their effect.

Writing questions are set on topics that do not stimulate the imaginations of the more able students and are vague for the weaker ones. Ofsted highlights the importance of differentiation, but the SATs offer no choices of question and do not cater for varied abilities. Last year's Shakespeare task attracted particular criticism. After teaching about character, themes, language and the drama of Shakespeare, the writing question was so tenuously linked with the play that it need not have been studied at all. My students were astonished after months of discussion and essay writing on Macbeth, to be asked about fictional villains in general. You could score top marks for an answer on Dirty Den.

My students enjoy Macbeth. However, I resent the weeks needed to prepare for the test. It limits the creative and dramatic possibilities in favour of work on prescribed key scenes. Does the QCA lack nerve? It wanted to please the traditionalists by including a section on Shakespeare. But it saw that it was ludicrous for a third of the exam to revolve around one text, and so made the writing question only tenuously linked to the play studied. Under pressure, it has dropped the question from next year's test. This politicisation of the test undermines it.

While the SATs are assessed externally, which should reduce workload, teachers still have mock exams to mark, paying close attention to a complex system of points. The final assessment feels like my professional judgement has been overridden.

So who is really being tested? When a department's results go down, teaching methods are scrutinised. When there is a marked difference between a school's SATs and GCSE results, Ofsted wants to know why. The Government stakes its reputation on the results, so it too is being tested. The idea that children's own ability can affect their performance is never debated so the exams don't seem to monitor their progress.

And an exam that has the objective of improving literacy has the opposite result. A Year 9 curriculum dominated by SATs' preparation often alienatesstudents and erodes their appreciation of and enthusiasm for language and literature. My class enjoyed their Year 8 course, writing updates of The Canterbury Tales and acting A Midsummer Night's Dream. Year 9 has not been so positive. We read poems, but didn't have much time to discuss their responses - we were learning the technical terms. Animal Farm resulted in excellent work on speeches, but there wasn't time to look at the importance of allegories once we had analysed Orwell's punctuation.

If teachers were free to assess Year 9 pupils according to national criteria and with results moderated internally, the exam could be tailored to meet their abilities and we would still be informed of progress. Yet the SATs mainly succeed in increasing cries of "It's boring" in lessons. Students tell me they regard the tests as a waste of time and they serve no purpose. English schools are stuck with the tests, so while the nation gets set for the summer, we'll get ready for the SATs.

The writer teaches English at The Latymer School in Edmonton, London