SHATs Marking, Again

I recently posted commentaries on Nicky Morgan’s announcements about the need to look again at national testing, including extending this to 7 year olds, as well as satirical looks at the sample Key Stage 2 Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling test for English.

If and when there needs to be a battle to prevent the proliferation of a testing regime – perhaps even a return to Key Stage 3 testing – I have been consistent in stressing that the teaching profession needs to step up to the plate and argue against it. The teaching unions and national subject organisations need to do this as well. Everyone who has an informed understanding of the dangers, both educationally and otherwise [that stress/pressure element], needs to voice their objections.

There is one other crucial and ultimately successful move the teaching profession could make to prevent these tests from happening: refuse to mark them. As an examiner of GCSE throughout most of my entire teaching career of 30 years, and now beyond this, I never marked SATs as a matter of integrity and principle, and am proud of this.

I know many brilliant teaching colleagues who have marked various SATs, and most of these, if not all of those who I respect, have done so for the payment. I understand entirely the need for this, especially younger colleagues struggling financially whilst pursuing one of the most challenging occupations, but they too need to find a way to resist providing the workforce to help make these tests a possibility. Any English teacher who has allowed themselves to be shackled by the ludicrous constraints of finite marking schemes must have felt the nonsense of it all, and the shame.

I’ll leave this part of the current commentary there.

cover 2

When I self-published my novel Writing with Hammers recently, I considered not including the following chapter as I felt the removal of Key Stage 3 SATs had made it redundant. This level was the only one I had experienced and I recall genuinely outrageous times when reviewing my school’s students’ exam papers and finding wonderfully individual or creative or even incisive, if unexpected, answers disregarded because they did not ‘fit’ the prescribed and narrow mark scheme answers. This, coupled with the generally deconstextualised and therefore meaningless questions themselves, underpin and inform much of my entire rejection of them.

Or to put it more satirically, here is that chapter that I did retain – for a poignant sense of nostalgia – but should/could continue to be contemporary as a warning both in light of the current KS2 proposals and any future expansion:

SHATs Marking

I wouldn’t touch them with any kind of pole, but there are colleagues who are prepared to mark the national SHATs papers. There was a time when as a profession we collectively refused to have anything to do with these, but like a slow insidious virus, they have managed to pervade and triumph.

My opposition isn’t so much based on the narrowness of the tests, as significant as this is, but more to do with the complete unreliability of the marking process. For years, my SHATs results have fluctuated up and down like a float in a whirlpool. One year our school’s results were about the best in the country (transparently inaccurate), and in another we had no distribution curve, a term I learnt from the Head of Maths, which suggested that we had cheated in order to give all of our students virtually the same scores (but I hadn’t yet implemented the then Head’s plan for such deception).

So it comes as a major surprise when a traitor in my department, who claims she marked them out of financial despair and desperation, shows me her SHATs Marking Manual. I think the gesture is an attempt to assuage guilt, and so it should be. She’s taking a bit of a risk because these manuals are meant to be confidential and in fact aren’t supposed to be taken away from the regional training meetings. I’m delighted to get the opportunity of examining one of these rare documents, and coming on the back of receiving Norm’s illicit video, I feel like a very successful if unintentional spy.

I’m surprised at how few words there are. The instructions are given largely through drawings and so it looks more like a comic strip than a conventional training manual. There’s very little information even in this illustrative form. The main page titled ‘Marking Process’ has a sketch of a woman sitting at a table, an exam paper in front of her that she’s marking with a pen, and she is wearing a blindfold that looks like the kind people buy for sleeping or wearing on aeroplanes. The only instruction is place random ticks, no more than four, down right hand side of page. That’s all there is. I turn the page and there is a drawing of the same woman with a large smile and a bundle of presumably marked papers being placed in an envelope.

“I can understand the random ticking business,” I tell Martina, our SHATs double agent, “because I’ve seen plenty of examples of this minimalist annotating, but the blindfold idea is more weird than even I could have imagined.”

Martina doesn’t reply and instead reaches down to her handbag. She picks it up off the floor, places it in her lap and then rummages inside. Like a magician with a hat, she pulls out a blindfold and holds it up to me, smugly, as if she’s performed a very special trick.

I take the blindfold and have a closer look. It’s exactly as in the illustration in the manual. The only thing the manual doesn’t show, however, is the little tag on the outside of the right eye covering printed with Government Issue. Martina sees me reading this and all she says on the whole subject is,

“Yes, everyone calls them their GIs. It’s an in-joke I guess.”

That night at home I sit in front of my stack of unmarked essays, feeling inundated and daunted as usual about the amount of work to be done. I get through about five papers in the first hour and start to feel totally exhausted, beginning to fall asleep at my desk. It’s a familiar pattern. I’ve already had my early evening nap, but the tiredness comes back like a wave up my soporific shore. I must be drifting in and out of sleep and start to dream or even hallucinate about the SHATs marking with a blindfold. This makes me snap out of my drifting in a sudden anger, but all I can do is sit and stare at the pile of unmarked homework. Then, feeling like a reformed alcoholic about to sneak a drink, I spot my scarf hanging over the back of the chair and with a strange compulsion, decide to try this blindfold marking. I know it’s hypocritical, but I’m desperate too. I tie the scarf around my head and just get down to it. It’s peculiar at first, not being able to read the students’ work, but it is remarkably easy once in the swing of things. One or two of my early ticks miss the pages altogether, but you soon develop an instinct for where the edges are. Before I know it, in half an hour I’ve finished all of the papers.

It’s proved such a successful system that I’ve actually got time to sit down and watch a film on television tonight. As I do, I can’t help feeling like I’ve just been involved in murdering someone.

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