Monthly Archives: July 2011

Lord Bew, Cormac McCarthy and assessing writing

This year’s SATs results arrived yesterday and, in my school, had the distinctly predictable effect of telling us what we know already. There were few surprises, except with a handful of writing papers which were preposterously over-marked – although other schools are clearly having major concerns with how papers have been assessed (see here).

Of all the tests taken in Year 6, it has been the writing one that has caused the most consternation over the years and there has been support for Lord Bew’s recommendation that they be scrapped (or, more accurately, replaced with a mix of moderated teacher assessment and tests in grammar, punctuation, vocabulary and – heavens above – handwriting).

There is a certain objectivity to numeracy that lends itself to traditional testing (although I’m not so sure three different tests – calculator, non-calculator, and quick mental maths – are entirely necessary in order to establish a child’s mathematical capabilities at this age).

The science test, now pretty much obsolete except for the small number of schools chosen to taken them for moderating purposes, also had a clearer basis in yes/no or right/wrong therefore lending itself more readily to external testing.

The reading test has a lot to answer for, particularly this year’s paper which, in parts, was obscure to the point of being inaccessible (see post here for a summary, including Michael Rosen intellectually shredding the paper, question by question).

Lord Bew’s review advocates a re-vamped reading test design which looks at the amount of writing required in the current test, the kind of texts children are expected to read and making the sequencing of questions more accessible to lower ability children. Quite right too. But why these recommendations weren’t already part of the test design is extraordinary. It does make you wonder what planet the test makers inhabit and, back down to earth, what procedures – if any – they have in place for gathering feedback from teachers (or indeed, the children) on the tests they produce. Making tests progressively harder so the less able children can access them is not rocket science, even for a science paper.

But, to return to the writing tests, Bew is right to tip the balance clearly towards teacher assessment. Aside from the difficulty of assessing a single piece of writing with all the inherent subjectivity this involves, this is the test that puts children under the most unfair and artificial pressure.

Writing is a creative experience but the testing process reduces it to something functional: use a semi-colon; write a complex sentence; add a rhetorical question. It’s as if writing is seen as nothing more than the routine assembly of constituent parts which can be simply reproduced by following set procedures, the same as building a scale model or changing a lightbulb.

To succeed in these tests children have no particular need to show flair or imagination, but must instead demonstrate their technical skills under highly constrained conditions (one test is twenty minutes long, including planning time). How hard it is to generate a passion for words and for writing when, as teacher, you know you are to be judged not simply by a child’s mastery of parentheses (which I’m all for), but whether they can reproduce this mastery – whether their writing needs it or not – under timed and pressured conditions. This is difficult – it leads irreversibly towards teaching to the test and ticking of boxes.

So, well done Lord Bew for scrapping the writing tests.

As for their replacement – tests in grammar, punctuation, vocabulary and handwriting – the jury is very much out. We may have to wait and see what they look like and, critically, how much weight is put on each of the elements, compared to the teacher’s assessment of the child’s work throughout the year.

Certainly, in a technological age, a handwriting test seems somewhat anachronistic and, in terms of grammar and punctuation, I can’t help thinking of Cormac McCarthy – the authors who prefers ‘simple sentences’, never uses speech marks or semi-colons, only bothers with an ‘occasional comma’ and believes there is ‘no reason to blot up the page with weird little marks’. But, what does he know, he’s only won the Pulitzer Prize.

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