Sats: Could this one change fix the tests?

Allowing pupils to study the texts before the Sats reading paper would give the test value, writes this Year 6 teacher

Here's one simple way to fix the problem with Sats, says Carl Headley-Morris

A quick Twitter search will tell you that I’m not alone in thinking that the Year 6 Sats are broken. I’ve read a lot of "the Sats should be scrapped" and "the tests are unfair" articles, and I’ve liked, commented and shared a lot of the posts. It’s been a month or so since Jeremy Corbyn promised to abolish them. So far, there’s nothing to suggest what he’d replace them with…

Well, I was always told to provide a solution if I spotted a problem. I think I have one.

First things first, I don't think the maths papers are a problem. I am a big fan of the replacement of mental maths with arithmetic. If properly taught throughout key stage 2, children should not have any problems scoring highly on this paper at all. The reasoning papers seem to have been fairly balanced since their introduction a few years ago, too. I like that one paper leans more heavily on practical application and the other on more theoretical maths (as theoretical as 11-year-olds can get, at least). I think maths has been fixed.

I also have no problem with the spelling, grammar and punctuation (SPaG) paper. It’s needed as so many children I have encountered in Year 6 have struggled to tell me that a sentence needs a subject and a predicate (or even just "a noun and a verb"). Again, if properly taught throughout KS2 (and 1 for that matter), SPaG should be an easy win.

My problem is, like many colleagues of mine, the reading comprehension paper. Essentially, I don’t like that this one-hour paper is a test of reading speed followed by guess-what-the-examiners-are-thinking exercise.

Sats: let's give children a chance

All too often I have had children suggest possible answers to past papers only to have to tell them that they would receive no points, despite their answer being perfectly viable. I get especially annoyed when it comes to poetry (blissfully a fairly rare occurrence). How can we confidently demand objective answers to something that is, by its very nature, a subjective text? It baffles me.

And then there’s the classic complaint of the texts being out of touch with real children. This year was a little better but overall the texts are all but alien to the children.

So what? Do we just pander to the dumbing-down of children's literature? Maybe have David Walliams write the contemporary texts and borrow something from Roald Dahl for the classic (and deliberately more challenging) third piece?

Please God, no.

I don't think we need to go to such extreme lengths. I think we can keep the reading papers exactly the same. Just as dry; just as alien. There is a way to fix it.

Ready? It's a crazy idea but it just might work...

Send the reading booklets out early.  

That’s right. Send every school in the country the reading booklets one month before the Sats are due to start. Just the reading booklets, mind. Not the questions (obviously). That way, schools and staff have the opportunity to apply the guided reading techniques they have been practising for years. No one will know what the questions will be, so there is no chance of anyone getting an unfair advantage. It will simply allow teachers to do their jobs: to teach children how to explore a text.

Think of the excitement for the children – getting a "sneak peek" at their big tests. I guarantee their engagement will be palpable, sitting that comprehension paper (that, by now, is truly a test of comprehension and not speed reading) with their anthology covered in their own notes; being able to answer some of the more "find and copy" questions almost immediately from building so much familiarity with the texts; using the time they would have freed up to give deeper and more thought-out responses to the questions that begin with "Why did..." or "Explain how..."

It's also a lot more realistic. Their next big, national tests are the GCSEs, for which they would have studied a couple of books for months. Why do we expect children, only 120 months old and under, to be able to excel in a blind book exam? It's cruel. So send out the booklets early. Give them a chance.

Heck, only send out the first two texts. Let the third, more challenging text remain unseen if you feel you absolutely must keep some your secrets. I'd have no problem with that. It would be a good check to see which children actually achieve "above expectations" instead of merely those who can read really quickly.

So that's my solution.

Although I feel I should point out that these exams are supposed to be an end of KS2 assessment. Too many Year 6 teachers are left to make a Hail Mary cavalry charge (if you'll forgive a mixed metaphor) in very little time. I don't advocate end-of-year tests for every year group, but accurate, informal assessments need to be made and realistic, honest evaluations of progress need to be drawn and acted upon to fill gaps before the children get to the end game.  

It's a thought for another time, but how many of us are compelled to give children grades that they really don't deserve due to pressure from SLT or governors? How often have we heard "their grades can't go down"? Why not? If the child's performance has dropped, isn't that really important to know about? Shouldn't we be looking for those red flags in our data?

Like I said, a thought for another time. For now, just send those reading booklets a little earlier. Give the kids a chance, eh?

Carl Headley-Morris is a Year 6 teacher in the UK. He tweets @Mr_M_Musings

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