Maths SATs: how to address three common errors

As attention turns to SATs, Jon Parsons offers his advice on how to identify errors commonly seen in practice papers

sats maths common errors

As we enter the new year, the thoughts of Year 6 teachers will inevitably be turning to SATs in May.

Many will be looking at how best to use practice papers to prepare pupils. 

The data that comes out of these – either raw or standardised scores – could potentially be useful, but I have found the analysis of the types of error pupils make vital to building pupil confidence and attitudes towards the test.  


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Rather than focusing on specific common errors for specific areas of maths, this feedback is very much about test technique and highlighting easily avoidable mistakes. 

To do this I have broadly grouped these errors into three categories: 

Transcription errors

The oft-spotted transcription error rears its head across almost every type of question on the SATs papers. These mistakes can manifest in a number of ways: perhaps the pupil has read the calculation as an addition, but in the stress of a test has performed a subtraction calculation instead.  

While working quickly, a pupil may read numbers incorrectly (a 3 as an 8, for example, or a 6 as a 9). This does not mean that the pupil cannot calculate accurately or has no understanding of the process they are undertaking.  

It is important for all pupils to be aware of which mistakes are due to misconceptions and which are due to lack of attention to detail, but especially so when the pupils performed the procedure correctly. 

Experience has shown that a pupil's test-taking confidence can be built even when the answer is incorrect by showing that the specific transcription error has overshadowed an otherwise correct use of procedure. 

It can also focus the teacher's attention on whether or not this area of maths needs any more consolidation, or whether a short period of instruction for attention to detail would be more beneficial.

Calculation errors

Similar to the transcription error, pupils may be able to complete a test question from start to finish, using the correct procedure or method, but arrive at the incorrect answer due to a combination of one or more calculation errors.  

In these instances, it is vital to ascertain for the individual child why the error has been made, as the remedial work needed to correct this will change as a result of this diagnosis. As with all of the errors mentioned, it is not just a case of providing more practice of the same question and hoping that the pupil will get it right. 

If the pupil has conceptual understanding of the question, but cannot multiply correctly, then the focus of work needs to be on the very specific aspects of the calculation that they cannot do.  

Similarly, it is also useful to know how much influence the test situation has on pupil performance: has the child had a mental block under pressure and are they able to normally perform fluid calculations in everyday situations? 

Method or misconception errors

It seems obvious to say so, but diagnosing and addressing conceptual or method errors is likely to be your biggest job so it is hugely important that these are separated from the other two types of error.  

Examples of such errors include the understanding of how to use calculation methods (as opposed to miscalculating), not fully understanding the steps needed to solve a word problem, or not knowing how to break into a problem.  

These types of error will take time, careful modelling and practice to address and correct, so for the child and the teacher there is a need for clear understanding on the type of mistake being made.

In summary then, drawing pupils’ attention to the type of error being made can help boost their self-esteem and test performance in several ways. If their mistakes were based on transcription-style errors, making them aware of this can help to show them that their mathematical understanding is fundamentally sound.  

If their mistakes are calculation-based, showing pupils that their methods are sound can allow them to focus their remedial work on accurate calculating. 

Finally, if the error is methodological, knowing how to remedy this to improve performance will be a powerful self-motivator.

Jon Parsons is deputy headteacher at White Meadows Primary Academy in West Sussex

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