Tag Archives: SATs

Wish them luck

SATs week is upon us. No more can be done. They’ve been coached, coerced and crammed. They’ve been drilled to death. They are machines. Tomorrow, they will sit in their rows, silent. Tomorrow, they must deliver.

The stakes are high for all schools but for mine in particular; on their eleven year old shoulders lies a heavy burden.

If they succeed, if targets are met and hoops are jumped through, then we are safe for another year. If they come up short, by one mark or by more, then an unspoken calamity will occur. Heads will roll. Or, more likely, the Head will roll.

The long history of neglect at the school, dating back a decade or more, long before any of the incumbents were in place, matters not one jot.

The school, like an oil tanker, may be turning a corner and heading towards a brighter horizon. There are good teachers in every class. The corridors, once chaotic, are now calm. Empty chairs are being filled with new children keen to come to a school that, not long ago, was bottom of every list. We’re going places.

But all this comes crashing to a halt if our Year 6 don’t do the business this week. The innocent victims of abysmal teaching in their early years, they have had a huge mountain to scale this year. For some, this has meant making three years progress in just over two terms. Whatever happens, they will have succeeded. They will not have failed.

The grim truth is that we need them to pass; level 4 is our golden ticket, our get out of jail card. Most are there and many comfortably so. This, however, is a game of percentages. We’ve known since September that it’ll be one or two children that will tip us over the edge, one way or another. More than likely, it will come down to one mark in a reading test or two in a maths test.

All that is left is to wish them luck.

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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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Rosen puts another nail in the SATs coffin

Thank goodness for that; SATs are over for another year. As always, they have prompted much debate and discussion, in the staff room, at the school gate and in the papers.

There is a pretty well-established critique of SATs which suggests they put too much pressure on children while telling us little about their abilities that we don’t know already. The high-stakes nature of the SATs, with league tables constructed based on the results, narrows the curriculum and moves school life away from learning and creativity towards something best described as training (take a look at this blog-post written from the perspective of teacher and parent – it makes for painful reading).

Added to this criticism of the system and its effects on children, is a more forensic analysis by Michael Rosen, who brilliantly (and at some length) picks apart the detail of the reading assessment undertaken this year.

Reading Rosen’s argument was a huge relief – I was not alone. I had looked at the paper with amazement – and a sense of rising panic – wondering quite how some of the questions should be answered. Many of the references in the text were obscure and technical, pushing the capabilities of even the best readers.

And, as Rosen’s points out, some of the inferential question required a broader understanding or life experience which is simply beyond most ten or eleven year olds (except those, he argues, who have had a particular upbringing – middle-class and fortunate, with frequent day trips to national parks. I paraphrase a smidgeon here of course – the best way to do justice to Rosen’s words is to read them in full).

There’s nothing wrong with a challenge, but it should be within reach. Parts of this test seemed downright unfair. Along with the more familiar, systemic criticisms of SATs, Rosen’s line-by-line and word-by-word assault raises further questions about the point of such an assessment, particularly when it seems set up, by design, to create failure, rather than providing a meaningful picture of a child’s reading abilities.

A simple solution would be to scrap SATs and give children a ‘level’ at the end of Year 6 based on the assessment of the teacher. To ensure accuracy and accountability, schools should be expected to have internal systems to moderate and check these assessments. This could then be supplemented by an external check, perhaps with random sampling of schools or individual children.

That way, we would still have good, rigorous data on school performance, but without the hothousing and the strains brought about by the current system. And, who knows, instead of focussing a child’s final primary year on jumping through hoops, we could focus on what really matters and what really makes a difference to life chances: teaching and learning.

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Filed under Assessment, Policy, Schools