Sitting SATs caused tears

Sitting SATs caused tears

The recent Year 6 SATs’ reading paper caused tears from students who took it – and from some of their teachers. It was too hard, they said.

The National Association of Headteachers claimed that even staff ‘had to really think’ about the answers.

The Department for Education defended the paper, saying the questions had been ‘rigorously trialled’ before being rolled out.

However, the argument between teachers and those who set the tests rather misses the point.

A test is not for the teachers to grade the test, but for the test to grade the students.

It is how we grade the children that matters. Any test can be criticised if you try to make every element of it fit the students who take it.

If a child can’t do a certain question, we should not necessarily change the question but show that some children could not do it and others could, and this should be reflected in their grading.

The recent criticisms would be invalid if the grading system were more nuanced. After all, it should be possible to distinguish between the various responses of children to questions by grading them differently.

I have always lamented moving away from a thorough grading system which existed prior to the present simple three categories introduced after 2014: ‘Working towards National Standard’ (0 per cent to 35/40 per cent) ‘Working at National Standard’ (35/40 per cent to 75/80 per cent) and ‘Working above National Standard’ (75/80 per cent and above).

My percentages are approximations but reveal a real problem in the grading system.

Crudely, you could drive 15 buses through the middle of the ‘working at’ category.

There is no real distinction being made between the students’ performances. Even five grades of A to E would be an improvement.

Those who criticise the SATs test are failing to distinguish properly between students who work at various levels when it comes to comprehension.

As an English teacher, I identify three types of questions when it comes to comprehension.

ONE: Factual/information questions that involve a student taking an answer directly from the text. This is a straightforward question and teachers might refer to finding the answer by saying it’s ‘on the line’ or word for word in the text.

TWO: Contextual questions that involve a student understanding the passage and being able to obtain an answer that is in the text but may not be so directly obvious. Teachers refer to this type of question as ‘between the lines’, or when the information can be obtained by understanding a paragraph or a longer section of the text.

THREE: Evaluative/opinion-based questions where a student has to understand the significance of the whole passage or present a reasoned opinion of their own about the material. Teachers sometimes refer to this type of question as ‘beyond the line,’ meaning it involves thinking for yourself and responding to the text with some level of independent thought or consideration.

If it is understood that children can respond in quite complex ways to a piece of text, the grading system must reflect this. It cannot be expressed in the three simple categories of ‘Working Towards,’ ‘Working At’ and ‘Working Beyond’.

The previous system of grading recognised 18 grading levels and reflected the complexity of children’s responses to the material.

It ranged from Level 1 to Level 6 and at each level there was an a, b, and c grade. In other words, it was possible to pinpoint very accurately what a child had achieved. For example, a child could achieve a 4b or 6a grading.

This meant it was possible to accurately demonstrate how well a child was performing in literacy and numeracy.

This is information that should be available to the Government, to primary schools, to secondary schools, to parents, and to the children themselves. Tests are important because they convey data about performance. Without this, there is no point in having them.

Here are the three most difficult questions from the now-notorious SATs’ test. Can you answer them? This is from the BBC website and a teacher explains why they were too hard.

Question 17

Look at Harriet’s answer beginning It’s actually very appropriate…

Find and copy one word that is closest in meaning to “eat”.

Relevant extract: It’s actually very appropriate that you call it a “hotspot”. The gaps underneath the bridge are a perfect place for mother bats to raise their young. Baby bats are born hairless and have only a few months to develop before travelling south in autumn. They need somewhere warm and safe and the gaps under the bridge are just the right width to trap warmth nicely. These bat pups need to spend their energy on growth, not on keeping themselves warm.

Texas in general is a paradise for bats because of all its tasty insects. A mother bat will go out hunting every evening and consume about two-thirds of her body weight in insects every single night to meet her energy need. The feeding frenzy can last all night.

Answer: The teacher was concerned that the answer was “consume” but many children would have written “feeding”. According to the mark scheme, both answers were acceptable.

Question 8

She wriggled back inside the tent…

What does this tell you about how Priya got inside the tent? Tick one.

  • She ran quickly inside.
  • She jumped through the flap.
  • She had to squeeze in.
  • She crept in quietly.

Answer: The answer was that she had to squeeze in, but the teacher believed many children would have chosen crept in.

Question 13

Look at the first two paragraphs.

In which American state is the Congress Avenue Bridge found?

Relevant extract: By day the Congress Avenue Bridge in the city of Austin could hardly look more normal: a grey, dreary city-centre road bridge. By night, it plays host to one of the most amazing shows nature has to offer. The underside of the bridge is home to more than a million bats, and every evening in summer they all come swarming out at once, rising up into the city sky like a tornado before spreading out in all directions like plumes of smoke. Standing on the bridge, you might even feel the wind from their wings as they pass by.

Austin is the capital city of the state of Texas in the USA, but it is also the bat capital of North America. The bats under the bridge attract thousands of visitors every year, and every August lovers celebrate Bat Fest on the bridge in their honour.

Answer: The answer is Texas but the teacher told us it was likely children would not be familiar enough with American geography to know that Austin is not a state.

What about these questions? Were they appropriate? I would say yes. All three were contextual and a more sophisticated grading system would have distinguished between the students that could and couldn’t answer them.

Fix the grading system and the test does not need to be manipulated to fit the student.